We judge stories we hear at work in three ways. First, is it plausible, did this really happen? Second, is this relevant, can it help me? Third, is it interesting, am I going to enjoy this?
Therefore when we tell a business story it’s important to make clear its relevance at the outset. We need to know what you’re talking about and why you are telling me and this helps significantly with business story recall.
There’s a clever study that shows just how important it is to make clear your topic and your point at the outset. John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, from New York University, asked participants to listen to the following paragraph and remember it:
The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.
We’ve shown this paragraph to perhaps thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you were too.
The researchers tested a couple of variations. The first set of participants just got this description and their comprehension and recall was measured. The second group was given a little tidbit of information at the outset: “This is about washing clothes.” Their recall doubled and comprehension shot up. The third group got the tidbit at the end. In this case the result was the same as not receiving any information about washing clothes at all.
Start with your point
We should always be aiming for clarity and recall at work. This study shows that by simply stating our topic at the outset doubles our recall and increases comprehension significantly. Yet, adding the topic at the end does nothing.
Stories in particular need this clear signposting because in business we’re often in a hurry and have incorrectly learned that just listing to the facts is faster than hearing a story (of course this is patently untrue. I’ve heard people rabbit on for ages when a simple story would have sufficed). So we need to be assured that the story will be worth it. We need to know the point.
Starting your story with your point should be your default approach. I call it a ‘relevance statement.’ For example, if you were about to tell a story about the importance of nurturing networks of people as a way to keep agile, you might start your story by saying, “One of the best ways to respond to unpredictable crisis is to keep relationships strong and well-connected across the company.” Then I’d launch into the 911 story.
Don’t repeat the point at the end
Once your audience hears the story they are turning it over in their minds, making meaning of it for themselves. It’s important to resist telling them what the story means. If you start saying something like, “so what this story really means …” you are taking away the ownership of the meaning and bringing it back to yourself. It’s like explaining a joke. It just kills the impact of your story. And as the research shows, it doesn’t make a zip of difference to their recall or comprehension.
There’s another benefit of preceding your story with your point. It ensures you have one. A business story is only a business story if it has a point. This practice of sharing the relevance statement before you share the story also ensures you have a good reason for telling the story. Telling stories with clear business points will only enhance your reputation at work.
Bransford, J.D. & Johnson, M.K. 1972, ‘Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding: Some Investigations of Comprehension and Recall’, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, vol. 11, pp. 717–26.
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: