Stories Are Not Evidence

Great story; don't mind the facts.

Stories are all the rage in business persuasion today. Everyone loves stories. I love stories, and have written several posts about how they can be so helpful in ensuring your message gets heard, believed and remembered.

Being of a slightly contrarian frame of mind, however, I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that stories do have limits, and excessive reliance on them can weaken our persuasive efforts, especially when our listeners start probing a little deeper to find the real truth behind them.

There are three possible ways that a story can mislead:

The story may be untrue or exaggerated

One of the best examples of this for those who are familiar with psychology is the story of Phineas Gage, the railroad company foreman in the 19th century who was impaled by an iron rod. Gage’s accident took out all or part of his left frontal lobe, and the prevalent story is that it turned him from a likeable and effective person into an unstable and angry man. Almost any book that deals with the role of emotions cites this story to show how important emotions are to a normal, stable life.

It’s a vivid and compelling story, but as this article explains, most of it is not true. Gage went on to lead a reasonably normal life, working successfully in occupations that would have punished erratic behavior. In fact, the story about the story is a cautionary tale about how a few facts can be spun into a convincing story that can be used to “prove” almost any point we want to make.

Stories are always incomplete

By design, stories simplify real life; nuance and complexity get in the way of a good story. Good storytellers know that they have to keep them short and focused, so they omit details that do not contribute to the main point. That’s not a bad thing, unless the omitted details substantially alter the conclusions drawn.

Think back to any of the three presidential debates we’ve just seen: both candidates chose stories to tell about their opponent. They didn’t have to lie (although fact-checkers on both sides will assert that the other one did), they just had to choose which facts to leave out.

The story may be true, but insufficient.

This is one of the most common ways that stories can mislead. It is especially true as the story gets more vivid or compelling. We see it all the time in the media. A savage and shocking crime feeds the perception that a much bigger problem exists, leading to a demand for more law enforcement or for new legislation. Because stories draw us in, we focus on the specific details, which distracts from the larger picture: maybe this situation is not that common.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

Please don’t assume from what I’ve written that I am against the use of stories in presenting your ideas. Stories are a powerful and indispensable tool in any persuader’s kit, but they should never be used alone. Stories and other forms of evidence work best when they support each other. Stories can dramatize statistics, for example, and statistics can prop up the truth of a story. Used together, each is much the stronger for it.

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