Why we need to understand how to build better stories — An Introduction

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

By Ann Christiano, Annie Neimand and Matt Sheehan

For many communicators — particularly those of us who work to inform or persuade — we believe the focus of our stories boils down to one thing: the sharing of fact. However, research has shown that the exchange of pure information or pure fact isn’t unique to what drives human communication. Communicating facts is, in fact, a skill shared by many of Earth’s creatures who employ methods of signaling danger or direction to safety and sustenance.

So what drives the dominance of human communication and separates us from other species?

In the popular book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind,” author Yuval Noah Harari posits that from the earliest day of the genus homo sapien the telling of stories is what has set humans apart from all other of Earth’s creatures.¹ From our early days in caves sharing stories over fires, to today where each of us is now within 3.5 degrees of separation from any other person across the First World,² stories are what have built humans into globe-shaping creatures. They are what allow us to form complex networks that reach far beyond the 150-person relationship limit posited by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.³

Stories are the ultimate tool in persuasion, action and knowledge.

It is also true that a great deal of the work that many of us do every day as communicators and journalists are built upon what research is showing us may be a flawed premise: the information deficit model. On its face, the information deficit model is simple: the more information the public has about a particular issue, the more likely they are to act. “Ipsa scientia potestas est” (knowledge itself is power), says the old aphorism coined by Sir Francis Bacon in Meditationes Sacrae (1597).

We live in a different world today than Bacon did in the 16th Century. In a 2005 editorial, Science Journalist David Dickson examined the “power and pervasiveness of today’s communications technologies”⁴ and began to showcase the fallacy of the knowledge deficit argument, particularly around science communication. Our societies — especially those of us in the developed world connected on the mobile Internet with nearly the entirety of recorded human knowledge in our pocket — are not suffering from a lack of information. In fact, technologies have allowed us to create our own versions of reality and pockets of facts like those posited by Eli Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy, in his 2011 book, “The Filter Bubble.”

So how do we break through to communicate with those who have not had exact same life experience or built a body of knowledge exactly like our own?

At the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, we’re understandably obsessed with stories. As we began to look more deeply to the power stories hold, we came across this quote from famed cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner:

“In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.”⁵

With that challenge in mind, we took a deeper dive beyond into what scholarship tells us about how we see and respond to stories. We decided to look at the science of stories from two perspectives:

  1. How we can use what research teaches us about how brains work to tell stories that are more compelling, memorable, inspiring and likely to be re-told or shared.
  2. How to identify stories that are likely to have meaning for those we’re trying to connect with.

Some of the scholarship we’ve drawn on for this report is focused on fiction, and we will occasionally draw on works of fiction to illustrate our points. In that work, however, we see the same application for non-fictional storytelling.

It is important to reinforce here that we firmly believe that every story you tell as a journalist, scientist, advocate or changemaker must be true. So while this report offers ample advice for manipulating structure, detail and other elements, our firm recommendation is that you only include elements you know to be true.

This guide is a result of a pivot at the end of a grant the UF College of Journalism and Communications received from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to build a culture of innovation into our College’s work.

See more on the Innovators at www.jou.ufl.edu/innovators

Through this grant, we were able to bring eight individuals to the College whose own trajectories of discovery could inspire a culture of innovation among our students and faculty. Each time an innovator agreed to visit us on campus, we asked them what they wanted from the visit. Two of our innovators’ requests stood out: Melissa Bell, publisher at Vox, asked if we could bring together a group of scholars who might offer some insight to the kinds of information people pay closest attention to. And Matt Thompson, executive editor at The Atlantic, asked us to bring together scholars who studied virality — both in terms of disease vectors and information spread.

These lively conversations among scholars from a range of disciplines — behavioral and cognitive psychology, epidemiology, computer science and anthropology — were filled with insight and shared themes. They also got us thinking about how much we could learn from bringing together a group of scholars not just from our campus, but from around the world to find the answer to Bruner’s question: What makes one story more memorable, fascinating, sharable, and inspiring than another?

We were delighted by the range of scholars who accepted our invitation to a summit on story in late 2016, and the professional storytellers who led these conversations. We were helped by a group of graduate students and undergraduates who helped to capture these far-reaching explorations.

We’ve continued to accumulate research since that initial summit. It’s been overwhelming to wade through thousands of pages of conversation and scholarship, but also fascinating.

What has emerged are these principles that can help you tell better stories. We’ve grouped the recommendations into two larger categories: the first is a list of some of the things that will make the stories you tell more interesting. These are focused on HOW you tell stories. The second is a list of elements that can help you choose stories that are more likely to resonate with your community or offer new perspectives. So these will help you think about WHICH stories you tell.

We don’t presume that this literature review is exhaustive, or that we’ve even started to do justice to the depth and breadth of scholarship in this area. We do expect that these dimensions will grow, and that as we uncover new scholarship and experiment with these concepts, we’ll have more to share.

One last note: While we first approached this as storytelling, we’ve come to think of it instead as story building. We like that distinction because it reflects the intentionality and craft that goes into making a story really powerful. What follows are seven themes we’ve pulled from our conversations with scholars and from our deeper exploration of this topic. This isn’t intended as a formula for great storytelling, or a checklist. Think of it as a guide.

1. Harari, Y. N., & Perkins, D. (2017). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. HarperCollins. Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens : a brief history of humankind. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.

2. Bhagat, S., Burke, M., Diuk, C., Onur Filiz, I., & Edunov, S. (2016, Feb. 4). Three and a half degrees of separation. Retrieved from https://research.fb.com/three-and-a-half-degrees-of-separation/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

4. Dickson, D. (2005). The case for a ‘deficit model’ of science communication. SciDev. net, 27.Dickson, David “The Case for a ‘deficit model’ of science communication” https://www.scidev.net/global/communication/editorials/the-case-for-a-deficit-model-of-science-communic.html

5. This discovery came through Maria Popova’s excellent newsletter of ideas, “Brain Pickings



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Matt Sheehan

Matt Sheehan

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.