Learning How to Tell Stories

As a species, we thrive on stories. Before we could write, we used stories in an oral tradition to communicate with each other. Over time, these stories went from tales told around a fire to complex, moving pieces about religion, morality, war, and much more. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and the Ramayana are from different civilizations yet they share in common similar themes and an origin in the oral tradition. Clearly, storytelling is important to us, but why?

As Jonathan Culler notes in “A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory,” stories serve a few key functions for us as a species. First, narratives are pleasing: stories imitate life and often following a plausible or relatable journey (perhaps with a twist) is innately pleasurable. Furthermore, stories teach us about the world by wrapping very human themes into said plausible or relatable journeys. Finally, narratives establish social norms and illustrate what happens to rule-breakers; thus they intangibly police society. Given the importance of such stories, how do we effectively persuade people through them?

Aristotle cited the three elements of effective persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Ethos is an appeal to someone’s character or credibility, whether referring to oneself or another person. Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. Finally, Logos is an appeal to the audience’s sense of logic or rationality. Many people mistakenly try to divorce these three from each other when giving a presentation; however, they are most effective when used together.

An effective argument is ultimately a story. As a compelling presenter, you’d tell us why we should listen to you, whether by appealing to our character or establishing yours. You’d then couch deeply logical issues in emotional language in order to simultaneously inspire us and encourage us to believe. A great example of this comes from Dan Pink, author of To Sell is Human and other bestsellers. At TEDGlobal in 2009, he presented on “the puzzle of motivation.” He establishes his character by explaining that he has a law degree (albeit caveating it by mentioning that he did terribly in law school); he goes on to make an evidence-based case thereby appealing to the audience’s sense of reason. However, he brings in emotion by appealing to the audience as a jury and adding emotional cues to the talk in the right places. Obviously, using the three elements together enables one to be a more effective presenter.

Ultimately, Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, tells us that, “when dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” To that end, I’ve started taking a class on The Art of Storytelling by Pixar. Pixar creates some of the most riveting animated stories in the world through the medium of film; they balance character development with world-building in a way that enables them to teach children and adults alike. While all the courses aren’t out yet, I highly recommend you join me in learning how to tell better stories; after all, to tell stories is human.

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