A story designed to change your mind

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 11, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Seth Godin has a new ebook out called What Matters Now. It consists of 80 or so thought leaders each with a page to talk about an idea that matters to them. Each idea is summed up in a single word such as Dignity, Autonomy, Attention, Difference. You can download the ebook here.

Dan and Chip Heath have a page with the title, Change. They incorporate three ideas in their one-pager that is dear to our work: stories, positive deviance and changing behaviour. Here is what they wrote.

A troubled teenager named Bobby was sent to see his high-school counselor, John Murphy. Bobby had been in trouble so many times that he was in danger of being shipped off to a special facility for kids with behavioral problems.

Most counselors would have discussed Bobby’s problems with him, but Murphy didn’t.

MURPHY: Bobby, are there classes where you don’t get in trouble?

BOBBY: I don’t get in trouble much in Ms. Smith’s class.

MURPHY: What’s different about Ms. Smith’s class?

Soon Murphy had some concrete answers: 1. Ms. Smith greeted him at the door. 2. She checked to make sure he understood his assignments. 3. She gave him easier work to complete. (His other teachers did none of the three.)

Now Murphy had a roadmap for change. He advised Bobby’s other teachers to try these three techniques. And suddenly, Bobby started behaving better.

We’re wired to focus on what’s not working. But Murphy asked, “What IS working, today, and how can we do more of it?”

You’re probably trying to change things at home or at work. Stop agonizing about what’s not working. Instead, ask yourself, “What’s working well, right now, and how can I do more of it?”

Chip and Dan Heath are the authors of Made to Stick and the soon-to-be-released book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

It’s not a coincidence that the Heath brothers decided to tell a story to illustrate their idea and try and persuade the reader to adopt a different approach to change. They dedicate a chapter to the power of stories in their book, Made to Stick and conclude the book saying that most of the other effects described in the other chapters are encapsulated in stories. So let’s look at some of the features of this story and why it might be effective.

The simple story structure creates an image for us of both Bobby and Murphy (and let’s not forget Ms. Smith). I can see Bobby sitting on a swivel chair restless and bored. If the story creates vivid images for us there is a good chance it will grab our attention and we will remember it. We’ve all seen Bobbys in our life, so it’s easy to picture him in this story.

Names are important. Humans care about other humans. We want to know the names. Case studies often lack names and suffer for it. Again it creates attention through authenticity and empathy for people.

Also notice how they start with the story and then provide the advice. They didn’t want the reader to slip into a confirmation bias where we automatically discount suggestions as our first instinct. The story first allows us to pull the idea to us, own the idea ourselves before a suggestion is made by the experts.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Heidi says:

    Enjoyed the story, and the analysis of what makes it work. Story a timely reminder of positive psychology principles. Loved the link as well. Thank you!

  2. Robyn says:

    Great link to the e-book. Thanks Shaun. And you might like this example of how to change behaviour using another activity that disrupts the logical and analytical pathways of suggestion by experts.

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