Storytelling is the Secret to Being Heard

Storytelling is the Secret to Being Heard

What hand-washing, capital punishment, & Aristotle can teach us about content

If you were a woman having a baby in the Vienna General Hospital in the 1800s you were 5 times more likely to die of childbed fever if you were in the maternity ward staffed by doctors than the one staffed by mid-wives. That’s right, the one with the best medically trained professionals was more likely to kill you. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was determined to find out why, and find out he did.

At this particular point in the history of medicine, we were past the era of believing in evil spirits, so doctors were expected to have scientific training. Thus, autopsies were a popular pastime. But, we were also just shy of Pasteur; so, doctors lacked the understanding of germs and disinfection. Semmelweis discovered that doctors were doing autopsies then heading straight to the delivery room, without washing their hands.

In testing his theory of the importance of hand-washing, he drastically reduced the death rate. Surely, he’d be deemed a hero for this lifesaving discovery. Yet, when he presented the data, he was shunned by the medical community and ultimately fired. Why? Because he didn’t consider how to actually present his insights.

Fellow doctors believed Semmelweis to be accusing them of giving their patients childbed fever. Even worse, they felt he was suggesting doctors – dignified, reputable, revered noble individuals – were in fact… dirty. One obstetrician actually responded with: “Doctors are gentlemen and a gentleman’s hands are clean.”

So, instead of motivating the medical community to adopt a handwashing policy, the research was met with absolute ridicule. Semmelweis presented a logical argument, backed by loads of irrefutable data; but, failed to consider the mindset of his target audience. In other words, he presented data without the right context.

Data is essential – particularly in the world of marketing, and definitely in the era of “fake news.” It gives us something worth talking about, but just as importantly it informs how we talk about it.

Data needs context

You could say “well that’s great, but how do we figure out the ‘how’?” Excellent question. Leave it to those brilliant folks over at Stanford to help us start to figure it out.

In the 1970s they ran an experiment in which they took two groups of people on opposing sides of Capital Punishment. They then presented them with two studies- one in favor of it and one against it (both equally interesting and also completely fictitious). They asked the two groups to review the studies. Each party rated the study aligned with their view of capital punishment as highly credible and the other not at all credible. And at the end of the experiment, despite knowing the two studies were totally made up, each side managed to become even more dug-in on their view of the subject.

This propensity we humans have of accepting the info that supports what we already believe and reject anything that doesn’t is called “confirmation bias.”

So getting to that “how” – or creating the right context for our data – starts with a solid audience understanding, not just the demographic and firmographic detail we tend to load our personas up with; but, their relevant worldviews- who they trust, what they believe, and what motivates and demotivates them.

Any idea who the first person was to suggest the importance of these attributes in the context of communication? You guessed it, Aristotle. (I’m super at stealing my own thunder).

In 347 BCE, when he was running his own school – the Lyceum – Aristotle completed “The Rhetoric,” which is essentially a compilation of his student’s lecture notes that detail his thinking on persuasion. Aristotle believed there are 3 means of persuading an outcome Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

  • Ethos, which is all about showcasing credibility on the topic (or creating trust);
  • Pathos which is using an emotional appeal (aligning with their beliefs); and,
  • Logos which is using logic and reason to persuade.

The art, he believed was one’s ability to use the appropriate form of rhetoric to shape an argument – hence “The Art of Rhetoric.”

Makes loads of sense, but what happens if our audience doesn’t believe in or align with what it is that we need to communicate?

Context likes story

As confirmation bias studies have proven time and again, changing minds doesn’t happen with facts alone. In fact, facts left to their own devices work against themselves for the most part. So if information can’t get us there, what can?

The answer? Story.

There’s a fascinating theory (again established by those ridiculously smart folks over at Stanford) known as Narrative Transportation. It suggests that when we’re engulfed in good story, we mirror the world, experiences and even beliefs of the characters. We sort of suspend our own reality to experience something different.

It’s proven so powerful it can even tackle prejudice. In one study, researchers put together a story about an independent, free-spirited Arab-Muslim woman that ran counter to what many Americans perceived the culture to represent. The story actually reduced prejudice in its readers and increased their sense of empathy toward Arab-Muslims.

So when we think about delivering our data, through content, with context (and contrast- but that’s another post for another time) our best shot of making sure it reaches the believers, the disbelievers and the undecideds is to use story.

Story loves structure

I’m sure at this point you’re thinking “first she tells us we need context, now she’s telling us we need story. She’s tripling our work!” It’s true, I sort of am; but, with really good reason. And, to cut down on the workload, I’ll share one of storytelling’s biggest secrets: Story structure.

From Pixar to the podium, many of the best storytellers aren’t naturally born campfire connoisseurs, they use story structures to help ensure their stories stay focused on a message, logical from top to bottom and free from unnecessary detail. Think of it much like you would a recipe.

There are all sorts of amazing story recipes each putting the emphasis on a different aspect of the story which for us marketers can help us lean into driving a specific outcome. The most utilitarian I’ve ever come across is actually from the world of speech writing and actually originates from our good friend Aristotle.

Fast forward about 2300 years and jump from Ancient Greece to 1940s Indiana, and you’d meet Alan H Monroe. Monroe, a professor at Purdue University and acclaimed educator created a spectacularly effective approach to speech writing based on Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Unlike Aristotle who saw the “art” as figuring out which form to use, Monroe’s structure – known as Monroe’s Motivated Sequence – embeds all three into a single 5-step recipe. Here’s how it works:

The first step being Attention or getting the audience to focus on what you have to say. Followed by showcasing the Problem or missed opportunity. It’s across these two steps he believed you should appeal to Ethos.

Following the Problem step is the Solution or way to address the missed opportunity or need.

Across Problem and Solution Monroe believed you should appeal to the belief system or situation the audience finds themselves in- bringing Pathos to life.

Following Solution is the Vision, or an example of how the solution plays out. At this point, the logical flow of the information should be made clear to the audience- appealing to their sense of logic or logos.

Finally Monroe’s believes every speech should end with a proportionate Action for the audience to take. In other words: a reasonable next step.

While it seems pretty straightforward, I find it much easier to bring it to life through an example, like say this blog post…

  • Attention: I attempted to grab your attention with the title: “What hand-washing, capital punishment, & Aristotle can teach us about content” as well as the introductory story about Ignaz Semmelweis.
  • Problem: That same story of Semmelweis also presented the problem which is the danger of presenting data without context.
  • Solution: The solution I suggested was to create context based on what you know about your audience and the use of story (using a story structure) to bring it to life.
  • Vision: I made it real for you by breaking this blog down (which was crafted using Monroe’s) as an example.
  • Action: You could argue I haven’t yet given you an Action and you’d be 100% accurate, but really that’s just because my post isn’t finished. So here it is:

Monroe’s is an incredibly effective structure and it works everywhere- from the podium to the inbox and even over in a PowerPoint (or Keynote if you prefer). So give it a try in your next communication; and if you need help, don’t be shy!

Courtney Kay
Managing Partner at boutique consultancy Brand Publis, Courtney works with businesses to make marketing more human.

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