High School Graduation Confidential: Lack of Stories Speaks Volumes

In the 1920s a young woman moved to an isolated North Carolina town in part to oversee construction of a church. When she suggested that it be built out of stones from a nearby river, the locals laughed. It wasn’t possible to build buildings out of stone, they said. Their ancestors had done so (in Europe); they had forgotten. Jane Jacobs tells this story in Cities and the Wealth of Nations.

Unsophisticated villagers, huh? Yesterday I went to a high school graduation. A private high school in Los Angeles. There were six speakers: two adults, the school’s headmaster and a history teacher, and four students. Here’s what was so strange: No one told any stories. (One of the students told the beginning of a story.) The headmaster speaks at every graduation. The history teacher has given hundreds of lectures. Neither of them, apparently, knew to tell a few stories in that situation. No wonder the students didn’t know. Long ago, before cheap books, I’m sure everyone knew this basic point about public speaking. Now it’s as if no one knows it. What a vast forgetting!

I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Made to Stick sort of says the same thing. One of the authors, a Stanford professor, asked his students to rate a bunch of short talks. Their ratings had no correlation with how memorable the talks were. In other words, the students had no idea what made a talk memorable. They thought a good talk meant you told a joke. What actually made talks memorable were stories, the research showed.

Even Edward Tufte, a presentation expert, seems to not understand this. In his complaints about PowerPoint, he doesn’t tell any stories, doesn’t say anything about PowerPoint’s lack of encouragement of stories, and doesn’t say that students should be taught to tell stories (preferably by example).

I’m giving a talk next week. It’s going to be one story after another, which is not what I would have said before that graduation.

10 Replies to “High School Graduation Confidential: Lack of Stories Speaks Volumes”

  1. Not everyone has forgotten: Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software addresses exactly this point in his Introduction to the Best Software Writing. It’s not in the context of graduations, obviously, but in it he makes a similar point.

    Incidentally, I bought the book and keep meaning to write about it on The Story’s Story, as the essays are a) interesting, b) tell stories and c) offer a rich load of metaphors for other fields of endeavor. And if he manages to produce another volume, I’ll be sure to read that too — not because I’m particularly interested in software, but because the pieces are so compelling. And why are they compelling? Most tell stories, as you say.

  2. I have come to the conclusion that we are evolutionarily hard-wired for understanding the world through stories.

    I think NNT wrote about this in The Black Swan as well.

  3. Steve Jobs gave a highly non-traditional commencement speech at Stanford—the entire speech consists of just three stories (YouTube , text ) .

    Edward Tufte’s background is in statistics, which is not usually associated with effective storytelling. You might be interested in John Allen Paulos’s thoughts on this in Chapter 1, “Between Stories and Statistics” of his book Once Upon a Number (1998).

    @ Varangy: But in The Black Swan, Taleb says we may have to denarrate in order to rise above the “animal form of life”.

  4. @Nansen

    Exactly. The point that Taleb is making is that we are hard-wired for storytelling or rather, interpreting the world through stories. And to employ as unbiased reason in order to make truly rational decisions , one has separate our innnate desire for the narrative explanation i.e. don’t get fooled by randomness.

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