Why we all need to tell more—and more vivid—stories

Blog post

Think back over the things you’ve read and heard (rather than experienced first-hand) in the past week. What is most vivid?

For me, it’s the decisions made by the lead characters in a new BBC series Press (exploring the personal and professional lives of reporters and editors at two—officially fictional—British newspapers); the background story of an artist, Saima Rasheed, whose work I saw on Saturday (she studied miniature painting in Lahore and now applies those skills to contemporary scenes); and the recent experiences of a colleague who had a challenging summer.

What do all of my examples have in common? Stories. Stories with detail and meaning. Stories are memorable. They also help us explain the ideas behind them to others.

Over the course of the year, I read and see a lot of thought leadership. Yet few pieces give me detailed meaningful stories—stories that would make ideas stick and which would help me explain these ideas to others. Some authors do take a step in the right direction by including examples. But unfortunately, these examples often lack the detail needed for the reader to picture the situation. And this lack of vividness means the ideas quickly fade from the user’s memory—or at least the part of their memory they’re accessing when they’re thinking about their priorities or talking to a colleague.

Admittedly, it is much easier to create vivid stories about fictional characters in the exciting world of media than it is about real people struggling to keep customers happy in the energy sector, but it is possible. In fact, Harvard Business Review regularly includes vivid stories. Ideas—usually based on hard research—are made concrete not by statistics but by stories. Flicking through the September-October edition highlights numerous examples. Here’s one:

“When I asked Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger how he was able to land a commercial aircraft safely in the Hudson River, he described his passion for continuous learning. Although commercial flights are almost always routine, every time his plane pushed back from the gate he would remind himself that he needed to be prepared for the unexpected. ‘What can I learn?’ he would think. When the unexpected came to pass, on a cold January day in 2009, Sully was able to ask himself what he could do, given the available options, and come up with a creative solution. He successfully fought the tendency to grasp for the most obvious option (landing at the nearest airport). Especially when under pressure, we narrow in on what immediately seems the best course of action. But those who are passionate about continuous learning contemplate a wide range of options and perspectives. As the accident report shows, Sully carefully considered several alternatives in the 208 seconds between his discovery that the aircraft’s engines lacked thrust and his landing of the plane in the Hudson.” (The business case for curiosity, Harvard Business Review)

If you’ve got a point to make—in this case “Emphasize learning goals”—do as Harvard Business Review does and tell a story. Make your message stick, and give your audience the means to share your message with others.

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