Story or Die Is Not a Metaphor
The brain has ground rules for what info it will allow us to pay attention to, let alone retain. Story, however, comes equipped with an evergreen backstage pass, the better to whisk that info into our long-term memory. So it pays to remember:
- Every second so much info is lobbed at us that our brain filters out everything that isn’t relevant to us. Enter our cognitive unconscious, the gatekeeper standing guard, blocking data it deems unnecessary for our survival.
- We approach everything asking one question: Given my agenda, will this help me, or will it hurt me? If the answer is neither, it’s white noise.
- Increasing evidence reveals that our brain didn’t evolve so we’d get better at abstract reasoning, but so that we could better read other people. Our goal? To further bond with our tribe, without doing something stupid, lest we risk getting put on a permanent time-out.
Forget the Facts
The lure of using facts to make our case is strong, because they feel so sturdy, unassailable, and safe. But when we’re trying to persuade people to do something they’re not already doing, facts tend to come across as irrelevant, impenetrable, or threatening. Story personifies the facts so we can experience the specific effect they’ll have on us. Here’s why
- Just because a fact is objectively true doesn’t mean we’ll pay attention. If it doesn’t matter to us, or if we don’t have a context to give it specific, relevant meaning, we don’t even hear it.
- Our biology compels us to resist change and to stick with the familiar—that is, the things we already believe—because, hey, it’s worked for us so far.
- Story is what circumvents the brain’s defenses against change, allowing it to process new information rather than fight it,
Story is powered by emotion, and so are we. That is not soft science; it’s biology. And for good reason: it’s what allowed us to survive thus far. Understanding the role emotion plays in life, and in story, allows us to create stories that speak directly to our audience, making points that the facts alone could never dream of.
- It’s not emotion versus reason; it’s not either/or. It’s both/and—but emotion is the decider.
- Emotion dictates what will be encoded into long-term memory. Emotion’s criteria is: will remembering this help me navigate the future?
- Stories that persuade center on vulnerability, causing us to identify with the protagonist and arousing stronger emotion.
4 Stages of Storytelling
To create a story capable of changing someone’s mind, there are four stages your protagonist’s worldview must go through, culminating in taking up your call to action.
This is the closely held (erroneous) belief that your audience enters with. To simply tell them they’re wrong is to challenge both their self-identity and their loyalty to their tribe. It is this belief that’s keeping them from hearing your call to action.
This is the point you want to make. The events of the story are constructed to show your audience that the belief they think is helping them, isn’t; instead it’s hurting them. It’s keeping them from getting what they want and being who they really are.
The event(s) in the story cause your audience to—on their own—question their misbelief. This experience finally allows them to see it for what it is: wrong.
This is the moment when, having realized that their misbelief has blinded them to what will actually help them achieve their true agenda, your protagonist’s (and by extension, audience’s) worldview is transformed. This is what allows them to address the external problem—whether it’s working to stop climate change, damaging societal norms, or a wonky website—by taking up your call to action.
Your Audience, According to You
- Break out your paper and pencil, fire up the old laptop, and take a moment to write down your thoughts and make them real.
- Who don’t you want your audience to be? Why?
- What do you want your audience to do—what is your ultimate goal?
- Make a list of potential calls to action that would result in your ultimate goal. Dive deep and don’t just think it; write it out.
- Go over the list you just made and figure out the benefits you believe your audience will derive from each call to action. How would it help them?
- Who, in your view, would benefit most from heeding your call to action? Why?
- Close your eyes and envision the one person who embodies the group. How old are they? Where do they live? What are they wearing? Be as specific as possible.
Your Audience, According to Them
Take the time to research your target audience. Find someone who embodies that audience and, if possible, go to the places where they congregate with their tribe. Then dig into relevant online profiles. Your answers to the prompts below can be as long as you need them to be. As you search online, always have a pen and paper at the ready. Based on what you’re seeing, how would you answer the following prompts? Again be as specific as possible.
- This is what matters most to my audience right now:
- This is what my audience most desires in order to become their most authentic self:
- What do they aspire to be; what is their goal?
- This is what my audience most fears:
- What do they stay up at night worrying about?
- This is what my audience is doing now instead of the ultimate thing I want them to do:
- What external thing would they have to give up in order to heed your call to action? What emotional ties, if any, might they have to what they’re doing now?
Given what you’ve uncovered, take a shot at answering the three questions we started with:
- How will my call to action benefit my audience based on their specific worldview?
- What beliefs do they have that I’ll be butting up against when asking them to change?
- Based on their worldview, how will the change I want them to make help them become their most authentic self?
Based on everything you’ve unearthed about your target audience, have a whack at these questions:
- What point would your story need to make to overturn your audience’s misbelief (“Aha” moment)?
- What emotion would drive your point home for your audience?
4 Conditions of “Aha” Moment
To make sure your protagonist’s “aha” moment is powerful enough to inspire your audience to action, these four conditions must be met:
- TIMING. The “aha” moment must come at the very last second, and not a moment sooner. It happens in the split second before all would be irrevocably lost.
- AGENCY. The protagonist must be the one who saves the day.
- TRANSPARENCY. The audience needs to see the why behind the protagonist’s sudden change of heart. That is, they need to see the penny drop—it’s not just that the protagonist now sees things differently; it’s why.
- LIBERATION! The “aha” moment is what sets the protagonist free from the misbelief that has been holding them back all along.
Now, Go Unleash Your Story
We need stories. All of us. Stories aren’t merely for entertainment. Stories are entertaining so that we’ll pay attention to them. It’s not a choice. When a story has us under its spell, it’s hacked our brain, whether we’re aware of it or not. When the story ends, we emerge changed. And then we go out, and we change the world.
That is the power you now possess. Please use it wisely.