Why You Need to Tell More Stories

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

“People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.” – Seth Godin

Cruising garage sales one weekend, researchers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn spent the morning collecting dozens of random items including a common office stapler, a box of birthday candles, a pair of shark and seal-shaped pens, and a plastic banana. Paying no more than a buck or two per item, their total investment was $124.78. 

Their goal was to test the power of stories and to see if they could “transform insignificant objects into significant ones.” Their plan was to enlist the help of creative writer friends to have fun writing whimsical origin stories for each item. One writer would work on a plastic egg timer, another on the mushroom-shaped salt shaker, and so on. 

This is the opening paragraph of a 600-word story written by author Christopher Sorrentino for a coat hook in the shape of Dicken’s “Mr. Pickwick” purchased for just $1.

My parka hangs from a hook whose shape is in the likeness of Pickwick, of Dickens’ classic and eponymous book. The hook is mounted on the back of my door. Above the olive-drab parka, I can see Pickwick gesturing expansively. This is kind of a funny coincidence because just earlier today…

Here’s what happened.

When combined with the often-outlandish stories, the combined garage sale “junk” sold on eBay for $3,612.51 (a markup of 2,800%)! And the coat hook fetched $38. “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value,” writes the researchers, “that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”

Why stories work

When someone tells a story something magical happens – we create a movie in our mind. We can’t help it—we develop a picture of the characters, the scene, and the drama as it unfolds. Stories are irresistible—they are “built into the human plan,” writes Margaret Atwood. 

Notice what happens at a dinner when a friend interrupts the conversation with “That reminds me of when…” People pause – attention alerted – they lean in, curious, anticipating. For a moment, that speaker has earned the most valuable commodity. They have your attention.

Wired for stories

Our brains are literally wired to respond to stories. Research at Princeton found that stories cause the brains of both the storyteller and listener to sync up in a form of “brain-to-brain coupling.” The story throws a sudden detour in the path of the conversation. Any tension or disagreement is temporarily parked while everyone gets on board to see where the story takes them.

I use stories to punctuate the start of a new section in my presentations and to anchor the lesson. My story about a conversation with one of my pilots anchors the lesson Plan Like A Pilot. My story about a neighbor driving a Porsche anchors cognitive bias, and so on. When I meet audience members – even years later – they typically recall one of the stories and how it impacted them.

The currency of influence

Ideas are cheap and plentiful, but when combined with a good story they can become invaluable. “Ideas are the currency of the twenty-first century,” writes Carmine Gallo in Talk like TED, “and stories facilitate the exchange of that currency.”

We admire tech founders who started their rise to fame in a parent’s garage. We feel better paying $6 for a cappuccino knowing the coffee farmers enjoy better wages. And we are more inspired to take action on, say, climate change by pictures of melting ice caps and polar bears, than one more scary graph or statistic. “In the battlefield of ideas,” writes Jonah Sachs in Winning the Story Wars, “marketers have a  secret weapon—a well-told story.”

“Ideas are the currency of the twenty-first century and stories facilitate the exchange of that currency.” – Carmine Gallo

You are a storyteller

Here’s the thing about telling stories.

You don’t need to be an ex-Olympian athlete, celebrity author, or tech founder to use stories to persuade an audience. You just need a little faith and to let the story do the work.

A comedian’s joke works because of the unexpected pivot. They lead you in one direction “Hear about the new restaurant called Karma?” and then pivot you to the punch line “There’s no menu: You get what you deserve.” 

A story works because of the drama. “The first story is ‘Man in a hole’,” quipped writer Kurt Vonnegut, demonstrating the story arch, “Someone gets into trouble; gets out of it again. People love that story. They can’t get enough of it!” 

If you want to influence a prospect to buy, motivate an audience, or inspire your team, use stories. An hour from now they will have forgotten most of what you told them, but they will never forget a good story.

By the way, my guess is you won’t forget the story about the coat hook.


Cafe pic by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash