The British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, liked to play cards. But he also enjoyed eating a snack at the same time, and that tied up his hands and involved utensils. So, in 1748, he came up with a solution: he put beef between slices of toast, so he could eat with one hand and still play the game.
That’s how the “sandwich” became one of the most popular meal inventions in the western world. And if you’re reading this story for the first time, it’s unlikely you’ll forget it. It’s the power of stories.
The sandwich legend illustrates a simple truth about writing – the best way to engage an audience is to find the story in your message and make it as compelling as possible. I believe it’s what gives any piece of writing an emotional hook, enabling your ideas to percolate in your audience’s brain.
Confirming this approach, neuroscientists have shown us that our brains are more active when we listen to stories. But why does the unfolding format of a story have such a profound impact on our learning?
The simple answer: We’re wired that way. A story, in its basic form, is a connection of cause and effect, which is how we think. So we engage in narratives all day long, whether we’re buying groceries, working on a project, or daydreaming about the people we love. In fact, personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.
But there’s more. Neuroscience, brain imaging, and cognitive and behavioral studies also tell us that the ability to learn new information can only be connected to things we already know. In other words, we find meaning when we associate new information with what we already understand.
When we hear a story we activate a part of the brain that helps us relate the story to a familiar experience and feeling, whether it’s pain, joy, triumph or disgust. Even simple sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball” trigger activity in the motor cortex of our brains – the part that coordinates body movement. Mentally, we “experience” what we read or hear.
So, by demonstrating, rather than telling an audience what to think, they can learn about and embrace a new idea or product on their terms. No one wants to be lectured to. For a corporate writer, like me, this approach works whether I’m spilling my guts in a blog, writing a white paper, creating an ad or app, or guiding a riveted audience in a speech or PowerPoint presentation.
One more thing: The simple story is more successful than the complicated one – even though we think complex and detailed stories are more interesting. Again, science tells us the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick.
It also follows that simple language is the best way to activate regions of the brain that make us truly relate to the arc of a story. So I try to reduce the number of adjectives or complicated nouns in my writing – avoid jargon and clichés – and exchange them for more simple, yet heartfelt language.
If you don’t believe it works, try not to think about the 4th Earl of Sandwich the next time you bite into that chicken salad wrap at your desk.
I love sandwiches…and now they will never be the same to me. Very good blog today Don. The value of story can’t be over-stated. I agree, stories can be an extremely valuable selling tool…they help us connect our pitch (product, service,benefit)to the prospect/audience in lasting ways. Nice story Don, thanks.
Joe Paschke says
For a millions of years, humans have huddled around the fire at night, listening to stories. It was the only way to impart vital information necessary to the survival of the species.
Human beings, being social animals, must have gravitated to the most intriguing and interesting oral delivery systems that the most highly-valued members of their tribes used: stories. I would wager these individuals were the celebrities of their day, and everyone would emulate the best ways to tell stories until they became highly refined.
When two tribes cooperated on a hunt for large game they in turn shared, the common thread at the banquet was taking turns telling stories.
We are hardwired through evolution to listen and appreciate stories.
Bill Dunne says
Excellent. What struck me most is that you began the lesson not by announcing, Let me tell you why communication is best when it involves a story (which is what I might have done), but by telling an interesting story. Thanks.
Ginny Hull says
So true Don. Thanks. I learned something too about the 4th Earl of Sandwich. You mentioned that we mentally “experience” what we read or hear. That reminded me of a college coach teaching me “mental rehearsal” on the 3-meter diving board .. he taught me that if I could mentally see myself doing something then I would do it. It worked!
But is a wrap really a sandwich? The jury is still out.