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.
- 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!