June, 2016 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Greetings from the team at Anecdote and welcome to the June edition of Anecdotally. This month, we’d like to tell you about what separates a good presentation on storytelling from a poor one (namely, stories), bullet journals, upcoming conferences where we’ll hopefully cross your path, and an excerpt from Shawn’s new book Putting Stories to Work about how engaging stories can light up your mind. Speaking of which, Shawn’s book is still selling well. If you don’t have a copy, you can buy one (paperback or e-book) on Amazon, or you can order the special hardcover edition from our website — Shawn is happy to sign your hardcover on request.
In mid-May I was in Denver for the Association for Talent Development’s international conference (ATD2016). It was a huge affair with about 11,000 participants, many of them from overseas. Near the end of the conference, I recorded a video clip giving an update on the state of storytelling. In it, I talk about how there were 14 presentations on storytelling, which highlighted just how ubiquitous the notion is. However, these included many different takes on storytelling. Here’s a recap of my observations.
Numerous presentations had storytelling in the title but had very little to do with storytelling per se. They covered topics like content creation, branding and instructional design. I love this two-minute video clip from Stefan Sagmeister that nicely sums up my thoughts on presentations like these. Beware, it’s got some strong language.
I’m a fan of the Getting Things Done time-management methodology, the one David Allen first suggested in his 2001 book of the same name. Its main tenet is to get things out of your head — ideas, plans, appointments, interesting snippets — by jotting them down and, where necessary, making them actionable. The thing is, though, I struggle when it comes to taking notes, both in how I record them and how I organise them. I’m basically bad at it. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for good note-taking systems. In fact, I’m in the early days of trying out a newish paper-based approach called a Bullet Journal.
The basic idea behind the Bullet Journal is to let you capture ideas as quickly as possible, an approach its creator calls rapid logging. After scribbling the date and perhaps a topic heading, you record ideas in short phrases and put each of them in one of three categories — a task, event or note — using a â€˜bullet list’ system of dots, circles and dashes. You then use additional symbols to modify each item as needed, such as an asterisk to highlight a priority task, or a cross to flag a completed task. These lists are then organised using various â€˜modules’: an index; a so-called future log, where you collect things you’ve either scheduled way in advance (at least several months) or are yet to schedule; and finally, monthly and daily logs that tell you what’s coming up in those time frames.
In 2010, neuroscientists Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson conducted a series of experiments which revealed that when someone hears a story, their brain lights up in the same way as the speaker’s brain when they are telling the story. In the researchers’ words: â€˜Speaker and listener brain activity exhibit widespread coupling during communication’.
The experiments began with a young woman telling an unrehearsed story about her high school prom while hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine that recorded her brain activity; the woman’s story was also recorded. The researchers then asked 12 test subjects to listen to the recorded story while their own brain activity was monitored.
The first thing the researchers noticed was that the brain activity of the storyteller matched the brain activity of the listeners. As you would expect, there was generally a small time lag in brainwave synchronisation as the listener took in the storyteller’s words and comprehended the story. But remarkably, the researchers found that the brain activity of the listener often anticipated that of the storyteller at a particular point in the story. The listener was predicting what was coming next. And here’s the kicker: the subjects who did more predicting did better at the comprehension test they took after hearing the story.
Really engaging stories, ones where the listener is trying to predict what happens next, have the greatest impact. Or to put it another way, they are the most meaningful.