Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Power to Persuade: Stories v Data Dumps

In my book, Legendary Leadership, I wrote about how the most powerful communicators are great storytellers.

Broadcasting facts and data will often alienate people, making them feel as if they are being lectured to or preached at while becoming increasingly uninterested in whatever it is we are “selling.”  But stories of how your ideas, ideals, or beliefs change people’s lives, of how your vision is already making a difference for good in the lives of specific people—this form of communication will grab and hold your listener’s hearts.

When seeking to persuade others, statistics, and philosophical or theological assertions have their place, but there also needs to be more than this. Consider Frederick Douglass’ comment regarding the songs of Stephen Foster and what they did for Douglass’, a former slave, black brothers and sisters who were still in shackles.

They are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. [Songs] can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.

When we read the Old Testament what do we hear? There are stories after stories (and songs!) of patriarchs, prophets, and kings. It is no stretch to say that God revealed himself in stories. In the New Testament, Jesus, primarily, communicated his message through stories.  (WWJD!!) As for us, however, we usually gravitate toward the assertion of theological, philosophical, or historical bullet points. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but that’s the thing: information dumps don’t go far enough, as they don’t touch hearts. And if we don’t grab hearts, minds will wander away.

Go back to Douglass’ line about Foster’s songs: “They awaken the sympathies for the slave…” Stories (songs are stories put to music) put a face on the information we wish to convey. Stories put flesh-and-bone to theological assertions and philosophical arguments. Yes, share, for example, the information you have on poverty and its causes, but where’s the story where such facts will go deeper than our listener’s brains? Speaking of brains -

Quite often our audience’s brains are guarded by radar that points out any incoming information that has already been deemed bogus. Splat. (That’s the sound of your data hitting the ground.) This is true in school classrooms, churches, and boardrooms. Your arguments driven by data are pretty much useless in such cases where there are already built-in defense mechanisms that guard against your “bias,”  “phony information,” or “fake news.” But with stories: stories get around radars, pique the interest of our audience, and moves hearts to listen more intently.

Don’t tell me that God loves me. Tell me a story that demonstrates His love, as it relates to me.

Hold off on the data dump regarding, say, poverty and tell me about a specific broken and poverty-stricken family, and the generational losses of fathers, self-respect, and hope, and how, when proper solutions were applied, people flourished.

One of the reasons we lean toward using statistics without stories, is that many of us believe that we cannot tell a good and useful story. If this is you, the way to learn is to listen to and read well-told stories. You will also want to search for stories that put flesh-and-bone on your beliefs, vision, and issues that concern you. If you intend to persuade others in mind and heart, then storytelling is not merely an option: it is a critical skill-set.  

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2018

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