How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Storytelling can make the “intangible into something tangible and the unrelatable into something emotional” as Fabian Geyrhalter writes in his book ‘Bigger than this’. He places ‘story’ at number one of the 8 essential traits of a successful brand. Every marketing or branding book I’ve ever read has effective storytelling at its heart.
‘Made to Stick’ by the Heath brothers is all about telling stories that stick. They have a checklist for creating a successful idea: it’s a simple, unexpected, concrete, credentialed and emotional story. If you can tell a story that has even some of these traits, it is more likely to be remembered and better yet, acted upon. Stories can change perspectives more than any data analysis ever could.
Every government, company, business, start up or entrepreneur has something they want to change. It can be as simple as a business wanting customers to buy their brand of coffee over the competition. It can be as complex as a government trying to convince the public to behave in such a way as to mitigate the effects of a deadly pandemic. To make these stories ‘stick’ your idea has to be remembered, understood and have a lasting impact, especially if you want to change people's opinions or behaviors.
Luckily for us good storytelling is a learned skill like any other. In ‘Made to Stick’, the chapter about ‘Simplicity’ has a great section about the use of ‘schemas’. Schemas are pre recorded information we store in our memories about certain topics or concepts. We use them as shortcuts for interpreting the world around us. If I say ‘sports car’, the chances are most people will conjure up an image of a red, 2 door convertible. The Heath brothers use the example of a pomelo to explain…
“A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart."
Compare this to...
“A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.”
By saying the pomelo is like a grapefruit we get to use the grapefruit schema and are able to teach the concept of a pomelo much faster than simply listing the individual attributes.
This week I watched a great example of a schema in action - NZ Prime Minister Jacina Ardern, asked all of NZ to ‘behave as if you have Covid-19’. Immediately people can imagine what needs to be done. It’s not a suggestion, it’s a course of action you should take to protect the people you love and the people you live with. It’s simple, compact and actionable. The schema of ‘Covid-19’ now represents self isolation, social distancing, hand washing, cleanliness and death even. The irony of course, is that if everyone behaved like they had the coronavirus - no one would get it! It’s effective and makes people take the warning very seriously - much more so than just listing the actions themselves.
So, what story are you telling yourself today? Is your story going to lead to the change you seek to make? What are you trying to change in others? We are all victims of our own stories. Stories of scarcity, unfairness and of limitations. Perhaps this week we can tell ourselves an upbeat, positive story that we are all in this together. We have to believe that better is possible. We need to believe in the story we’re telling if it has any chance to become true!