Facts need stories, but only if you want them to be remembered
“I think this time we’ll cut down on the stories and just give them the facts.”
“Noooooooooooooo!” I didn’t actually scream, but you could definitely hear the italics in my voice. And then I remembered I was talking to my client.
“I mean, I’ll write anything you want me to write,” I said. Which is true; in the end, it’s their work. “But I’m just giving you the benefit of my expertise here. Facts need stories if you want anyone to remember them.”
Shortly after I got off the phone, I came across a blog I wrote a couple of months ago on Dr. Oliver Sacks, who excelled both as a scientist and as a storyteller. Lawrence Wechsler wrote in his Vanity Fair profile of the good doctor:
“He recently attended a conference on Tourette’s syndrome. Ninety-two specialists gave papers on EKG readings, electrical conductivity of the brain—all kinds of technical subjects. Sacks, the 93rd, got up and said, ‘It’s strange. I’ve been sitting here all weekend and heard not one sentence on what it might be like to be a Touretter.’”
Ninety-two researchers, not one mention of a patient. I’m sure their research contained an excellent array of facts, but nothing to make them memorable. Nothing to anchor them to the human experience. And even scientists are humans, so I’m told.
Facts need stories to transport them
If you want your reader or listener to remember what you have to say—and why are you wasting your time saying it if you don’t?—you must encase your facts in the colorful candy shell of a story.
Sorry—perhaps M&Ms are the wrong metaphor for scientists: You must encase your facts in the quick-dissolving capsule of a story.
A good story gamifies facts. Listening to a story may seem like a passive behavior, but inside—where it counts—stories activate our minds. We want to figure them out. We imagine different outcomes, look at them from various angles. Facts without stories just get filed away in a dusty corner of our brains. Why should we waste a minute on them? They contain no mystery, no possibility. Facts just “are.” Stories…well, stories “might be.”
Listen, I’m about as Type A as they come. When clients make with the small talk, they nearly always take me by surprise. But when I’m writing, I understand there’s no substitute for stories. They’re the only currency that matters.
I mean, write whatever you like; in the end, it’s your work. Still, if you don’t care about being memorable, you might as well just read your audience the phone book. It requires much less time and preparation. No one will be able to recall a thing you said. But you’ll definitely make an impression.