Telling yourself stories

A long time ago in a galaxy… well… quite close actually, I taught a communication skills course to first year computer science students. Most lectures I bounced in, made a lot of eye contact, and taught a very interactive class. The first time I taught the public speaking lecture, though, I walked in, turned the lights off, looked down at the computer screen, and spoke in a monotone, trying to act as nervous as I could.

Obviously I was trying to make a point about public speaking styles, but I was shocked to discover that my heart rate skyrocketed, my breathing became shallow and rapid, and my hands began to shake. Pretending to be nervous had made me physically nervous, in just a few minutes. Once I turned the light back on and resumed my usual style, I calmed down very quickly.

In telling my students a story about how I was feeling, I was inadvertently persuading myself. Which suggests that I could just as easily tell myself a story about being confident.

In “A Hat Full of Sky”, by Terry Pratchett, Tiffany Aching learns a lesson about stories from Granny Weatherwax:

“For example, there was the Raddles’ privy. Miss Level had explained carefully to Mr. and Mrs. Raddle several times that it was far too close to the well, and so the drinking water was full of tiny, tiny creatures that were making their children sick. They’d listened very carefully, every time they heard the lecture, and still they never moved the privy. But Mistress Weatherwax told them it was caused by goblins who were attracted to the smell, and by the time they left the cottage, Mr. Raddle and three of his friends were already digging a new well at the other end of the garden.”

Tiffany is shocked, but this is how Granny explains herself:

“What I say is, you have to tell people a story they can understand. Right now I reckon you’d have to change quite a lot of the world, and maybe bang Mr Raddle’s stupid fat head against the wall a few times, before he’d believe that you can be sickened by drinking tiny invisible beasts. And while you’re doing that, those kids of theirs will get sicker. But goblins, now, they makes sense today. A story gets things done.”

Stories do, indeed, get things done. They are our most powerful way of communicating. We tell stories to remember history – and sometimes, in doing so, we change it. We tell stories to make sense of science. The plum pudding model of an atom was a story. It explained what we knew then. When we learnt more about the way electrons actually behave we needed a new story, so we went with electron shells in the Bohr model. When we knew more about electrons, we had to move on from the shells. At each stage, the stories were a powerful illustration of what we knew, but they were never quite the truth.

Studies have shown very clearly that facts don’t persuade people – in fact they often have the opposite effect. If you tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines save lives, and show them all the stats, you will most likely succeed only in entrenching their belief that vaccines are dangerous. What’s more, they will tell you, with great passion, a story about this child they “heard about once” who became autistic after receiving a vaccine.

Likewise, if you tell a climate change denier that climate change is real and show them all the evidence, they will come back at you with ever more vehement arguments about conspiracies and warming pauses. They will tell you a persuasive, emotional story about deceit and manipulation. A story full of lies, but powerful nonetheless. Truth, despite all our intuitive, wishful beliefs to the contrary, is not a very powerful weapon.

A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Stories, though! Stories persuade us of all kinds of things. I’ve read a lot about rip currents over the years, but it took two people close to me getting caught in them to make me truly aware of them. Their stories are fixed in my emotional brain. If you tell me a story of someone having their chair pulled out from under them and becoming paraplegic, that sticks in my mind for years where all the stats facts and figures in the world get pushed out by the next thing to grab my attention.

Effective communication is about finding the right stories. Stories can change the world.  And it’s funny, because stories can change us as well. We tell ourselves stories all the time.

Stories like

  • It’s ok for me to break that road rule, because I’m in a hurry and there’s n0-one coming so it’s fine.
  • She hasn’t replied to my text and it’s been half an hour already – I must have offended her.
  • He would never have said that if he really cared. Obviously he doesn’t care. In fact he probably hates me.
  • I don’t have any real friends.
  • I’m no good at my job, and it’s only a matter of time before someone finds out. Ok, maybe I got some praise today, but they only saw one good moment. The rest of my work is awful. They only praised me because they don’t want to upset me, not because I’m good at my job.

Stories like this shape both our brains and our bodies. It’s very easy to get stuck in a particular story line. To tell yourself that the friendship is doomed, and interpret every subsequent contact in that light, and once you start thinking that way you might as well toss the friendship on the scrap heap. Or to tell yourself that you are no good at your job, and interpret every bit of praise as an aberration, and every criticism as confirmation. We trap ourselves in our own stories.

But the upside of that is that it’s also surprisingly easy to tell ourselves positive stories. Once you recognise the stories you tell yourself as just that – stories – you can start to reshape them. Give them a new moral, and a happier ending. The other day, feeling tired and unwell, I persuaded myself that I suck at my job.  I do that from time to time, when things are overwhelming. Especially when I am stepping out of my comfort zone, I find all kinds of specific reasons why I am no good, and why I should retreat back into a nice, safe cave.

But this time instead of giving in to it, I questioned it. I went back and looked through my positive feedback file, where I save many of the positive emails, cards, and comments from my students, and I ticked off each reason one by one. Every single thing my negative thinking tried to drag me down with was refuted somewhere in my feedback file.

Stories are very persuasive, and our own internal stories are the most persuasive of all. Fortunately there are ways to turn those stories around. Just like we need to tell the story of our scientific research in persuasive and compelling ways, we need to tell our own internal stories too, deliberately, to turn around those tough days. Keeping a positive feedback file is one technique that is hugely powerful. The Thankful Thing and The Successful Thing work too. Pick whatever technique works for you, or go with a mix. The trick is to tip the balance between positive and negative in your head.

I bet you’ve heard the saying that we need to give kids 5 positive comments for every criticism, but how powerful would it be if we could apply that to our own self-talk? How often do you actively praise yourself?

Maybe it’s time to start!

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3 thoughts on “Telling yourself stories

  1. thedanielmay

    Phew, so much to say.

    But first thing: yes, spot on. Story – as opposed to expository fact – is about evocation and touching someone, usually a call to emotion or action. Pure fact is never just pure; we must act towards it. To reject? To accept? To act? (even if it is the action of changing the way we think).

    Many people of technical background tend to weigh in on the power of the facts: I have demonstrated the validity of the facts, so my work is done. But this is not action. We really need people to then understand that these facts mean that they must change their behaviour. And now that we’re in the realm of behaviour change (i.e. behaviourial psychology and economics) that it’s a different ball game.

    I watched a Horizon traffic safety documentary about the great scientific advancements of the 1950-60s, where discoveries about fundamental accident safety measures were made. Drink driving. Seat belts. The scientists thought their work was done, but were dismayed when people just carried on drinking, driving without seat belts, etc. (Conventional wisdom was seat belts were unsafe, as you would be “thrown clear to safety” in an accident if you were untethered)

    A Horizon documentary showing the last hour of life of a traffic accident victim in real-time impacted on the thinking of UK lawmakers and population. A tragic and vivid story. Laws also needed to be enacted to change people’s behaviour. Today, what was strange new thinking is conventional wisdom. We still need stories, as Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission advertisements suggest.

    In the startup world, we are constantly pitching. The best pitches are really stories. Yes, there are facts and figures … but what do they mean? why is this significant? why should the listener care and act? Invest? Be convinced? Follow us into a brave new world? Life’s a pitch.

    The second thread raised by Linda is about our personal story and what that means to us.

    Narrative therapy is used to address depression, recognising that our personal story and how we tell it to ourselves and re-interpret it, can impact on our internal world. One perspective on depression is that it is where we have a sharply inconsistent narrative that we cannot make sense of, and being able to do so enables us to move on and up.

    I guess if the limits of our story are the limits of our world, then a limitless story is a limitless world.

    1. lindamciver

      Beautifully put, Daniel! I was very surprised when a student of mine, who was attending a startup/entrepreneurship workshop was told that his pitch needed to involve facts and figures rather than stories. He called me looking for numbers on cs education. I said he needed powerful stories, and he said he’d been told that facts were the go! Quite strange, but perhaps it was a perspective thing.

      Sometimes the biggest challenge is to make sense of that narrative, and try to pin down the stories we are telling ourselves, and recognise their origins. I’ve had some puzzles to solve of late. Slowly digging down to the source, but there are times when it is really hard, and in the short term reframing the surface stories is all we can do. Even if we can’t get down to the bedrock, changing those surface stories is pretty powerful.

  2. thedanielmay

    Pitches: you kind of need both facts & story. Many pitches skew towards either end, too much facts and not enough story / too much story and not enough facts. So context is important with the advice :)

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