Death, Sex and Children at Risk

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 19, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Communication

I’ve just found Garr Reynold’s recent post on stories and experience. He makes the good point that people remember stories because they convey emotions, which is very true. We remember what we feel. In this post I would like to briefly explore another reason why we remember stories and touch on the types of stories which are most memorable. Let’s take the last point first.

Garr tells us that he visited Haleakala National Park in Japan The park has beautiful but dangerous water falls and sign-posts warn visitors to be careful. Garr noticed that one of the sign-posts seemed more effective that the others because it included actual news clippings of people who had lost their lives. These tragic incidents were told as stories.

Apart from the obvious emotion these stories generated what else might be drawing our attention to these stories? One possibility comes from taking a human evolution and natural selection perspective. Over the 10,000s of years our species has been evolving we’ve been preoccupied by our own survival (avoiding death), the survival of our children (continuing the species) and sex (creating the next generation). Consequently we care deeply about death, sex and the safety of our children. Any story that feature these topics gains our attention. It helps explain the proliferation of hospital and police dramas on our TVs. So stories of death are hard for us to resist and warning signs that contain these types of stories are attention magnets.

It’s true that we remember what we feel but we also remember what we conjure for ourselves. To illustrate this point would you please read this story. I have some questions at the end.

After 21 years of marriage, my wife wanted me to take another woman out to dinner and a movie. She said, ‘I love you, but I know this other woman loves you and would Love to spend some time with you.’

The other woman that my wife wanted me to visit was my Mother, who has been a widow for 19 years, but the demands of my work and my three children had made it possible to visit her only occasionally.

That night I called to invite her to go out for dinner and a movie. ‘What’s wrong, are you well,’ she asked?

My mother is the type of woman who suspects that a late night call or a surprise invitation is a sign of bad news. ‘I thought that it would be pleasant to spend some time with you,’ I responded ‘just the two of us.’ She thought about it for a moment, and then said,’I would like that very much.’That Friday after work, as I drove over to pick her up I was a bit nervous. When I arrived at her house, I noticed that she, too, seemed to be nervous about our date. She waited in the door with her coat on.

She had curled her hair and was wearing the dress that she had worn to celebrate her last wedding anniversary. She smiled from a face that was as radiant as an angel’s.

‘I told my friends that I was going to go out with my son, and they were impressed,’ she said, as she got into the car.. ‘They can’t wait to hear about our meeting.’ We went to a restaurant that, although not elegant, was very nice and cozy. My mother took my arm as if she were the First Lady. After we sat down, I had to read the menu.

Her eyes could only read large print. Half-way through the entrees, I lifted my eyes and saw Mother sitting there staring at me. A nostalgic smile was on her lips..’

It was I who used to have to read the menu when you were small,’ she said. ‘Then it’s time that you relax and let me return the favor,’ I responded. During the dinner , we had an agreeable conversation nothing extraordinary but catching up on recent events of each other’s life. We talked so much that we missed the movie. As we arrived at her house later, she said, ‘I’ll go out with you again, but only if you let me invite you.’ I agreed.

‘How was your dinner date?’ asked my wife when I got home. ‘Very nice, much more so than I could have imagined,’ I answered.

A few days later, my mother died of a massive heart attack. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t have a chance to do anything for her. Sometime later, I received an envelope with a copy of a restaurant receipt from the same place Mother and I had dined.

An attached note said: ‘I paid this bill in advance. I wasn’t sure that I could be there; but, nevertheless, I paid for two plates – one for you and the other for your wife. You will never know what that night meant for me.

‘I love you, son’

OK, as you were reading this story what could you see in your mind’s eye? Could you see the mother and son having dinner? Did you see them walking arm in arm? Did you see him ring his mother? Did you see the envelop and the receipt it contained?

People see stories. We literally re-experience the story with the person telling it and this act of re-creation make the story our own. We remember what we can see and experience.

OK, what about this.

  • Stories are memorable because they evoke emotion.
  • We remember stories because we visualise what’s happening and create our own personal version of the story
  • Three of the most memorable types of stories feature death, sex and the safety of children.

What did you see? If you are like me you didn’t see a thing. Dots points and opinions don’t create imagery and therefore don’t conjure emotions and are mostly forgettable.

The story was posted to PassionHR list 16/3/10 by Mannish Aggarwal

Hat tip to David Zinger’s post 23 Employee Engagement Eclectic Resource Zingers (No. 13) for the link to Garr’s post.

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. Sally says:

    When I’d wiped away the tears, I then had to try to get rid of the images of a son and mother and all the love surrounding that! Thanks!!!
    I can’t imagine a world so barren, as to not see anything?

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