The Power of People Stories(Why use people stories?)

November 22, 2007

They’re easy to prepare. Although people stories may look like too many words on your lesson plan, they are so easy to remember that jotting down “Story of Mel Gibson” might be enough to remind me of the entire story.

They’re hard for students to forget. My 10-year-old twins are dyslexic and have exceptionally poor rote memories, yet I’m amazed at how they come home from Sunday School excitedly repeating in detail the stories that their teachers use. Even your poorest students may have remarkable memories for stories.

We love speakers who use them well Have any of you heard Ken Davis speak? I once watched him take thousands of worn-out teens, hook them to his message, and hold them in the palm of his hand for 40 minutes. He’s as good a communicator as I’ve ever heard for teens. Here's what Ken says about illustrations: "If we are to communicate effectively, we must realize that even the most logical speech in the universe will be of no value unless someone listens.

Illustrations and anecdotes are the glitter and sparkle that make people want to listen to our message." (1) "All great communicators master the art of using illustrations." (2) Chris King, editor/author of “Powerful Presentations,” wrote an article telling the difference between a good presenter and a great one. One of her five points is: "Great presenters have and tell great stories. Become an excellent storyteller, and you will be ‘Great.’"

Think of your favorite speakers. What do you remember most from their presentations - their explanations, their outlines, or their stories? I always remember their stories. Stories are vital in educating for character.

Educators are typically trained to move students from the known to the unknown. Thus, many character lessons I review excel at helping students, for example, to define lying and recognize lying. Yet, after the lesson, the students are no more motivated to stop lying than they were at the beginning of the lesson. Why? Because to successfully educate in character, we must move students past knowing the good into desiring the good and doing the good.

People stories go beyond transferring knowledge to motivating students on the feeling and volitional levels. As character education guru Thomas Lickona says: “We can motivate students to think about character – and the sort of character they’d like to possess – by exposing them to persons of character.”

(4) Note how the most popular books use stories. Great writers know that we love and respond to stories. For example, take the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Proclaimed the mother of self-help books on relationships, it has sold over fifteen million copies. Although first published way back in 1937, this publishing phenomenon is still ranked #125 in Amazon sales, almost 70 years after its original publication! What makes it so enduring and life changing? I believe that, to a large part, it’s his effective use of people stories.

According to Carnegie, “Readers of my books are soon aware of my use of the anecdote as a means of developing the main points of my message. The rules from How to Win Friends and Influence People can be listed on one and a half pages. The other two hundred and thirty pages of the book are filled with stories and illustrations to pint up how others have used these rules with wholesome effect.”

(5) Thus, Carnegie advises speakers: “The speaker should attempt to make only a few points and to illustrate them with concrete cases. Such a method of speech-building can hardly fail to get and hold attention.”

(6) Look at one of John Maxwell’s best-selling leadership books. If I highlighted the stories, you’d find that his books tend to consist of stories organized by an outline. Why are the Chicken Soup books best sellers? They consist of short, readable stories. Peruse popular magazines. People Magazine, Teen People, Readers Digest, Biography Magazine, sell people stories. Note the power of the anecdote over the power of evidence and logic among students. In case you haven’t noticed, the part of the teen brain that responds to logic must be roughly the size of a flea’s eyelash.

This explains why, rather than acting on the scientific evidence that finds 13,000 lives saved each year by wearing seatbelts, many teens prefer to believe the one counterexample they’ve heard – “My uncle Otis died because he wore his seatbelt.” For teens, the power of the anecdote tends to win over the power of sound research.

Instead of acting on the overwhelming evidence that Marijuana is addictive (e.g., if it’s not addictive, why do tons of users exhibit all the characteristics of addiction; and why do over 150,000 people each year pay thousands of dollars to enter treatment facilities to try to get off of Marijuana, if they in fact aren’t addicted and can simply stop on their own?), teens prefer to trust the advice of a peer “expert” who says he smokes weed but isn’t addicted. Again, for most teens, the people story wins over sound research.

Does this mean that we should ignore research and use solely people stories? No! We’re responsible to move students toward understanding the value of sound research. So, let’s begin by showing statistics that honest people do better in the business world than liars and cheats. Then, follow those stats with examples from your own life and the lives of others. Top educators employ great people stories.

William J. Poorvu, who heads Harvard Business School’s real estate program, notes that HBS: “emphasizes the use of cases in the classroom – small “slice of life” stories about real people in real business situations.”

(7) No wonder! Case studies of real people are interesting, easy to remember, and guard us against the tendency to reduce life and business to a set of simplistic formulas.Motivated to use more people stories? Let’s reflect next on the types of people stories that work best with our students.

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