Putting a $ figure to stories with Jonah Lehrer

Word count: 577 words

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Is your writing SPECIFIC enough? Never underestimate the value of being particular and concrete, as Jonah Lehrer explains….

I’m not usually thrilled by the prospect of meeting famous writers. Generally, their work excites me more than their persons, so I seldom attend “writer’s festival” events and instead spend my spare time…you know…reading.

But there’s an exception that proves every rule. Last week I presented a workshop at the world meeting of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in San Diego. And I had the opportunity to meet Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide.

I read his non-fiction book late in 2009 and found it captivating. When I heard Lehrer, a neuroscientist — who can write! — was going to give the keynote address as this conference it made me practically giddy.

Not only is he hellishly bright, but he’s also a fearsomely energetic and intense speaker who paces the stage like captured bobcat. A contributing editor at Wired, he’s a graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also written for The New Yorker.

Lehrer is a neuroscientist –- that is, someone who has studied the human nervous system. How We Decide explores some of the mysteries of everyday life. How do we choose our breakfast cereals? Which areas of the brain are triggered in the shopping mall? Why do smart people take out subprime mortgages?

When Lehrer spoke, however, he impressed me most with his emphasis on the importance of stories. If you’ve read my newsletter for a while, you’ll know I’m practically obsessed with stories. This is because:

• Stories have been meaningful to humans since before we were literate. We are hardwired to respond to the natural tension in stories and to engage in the “beginning, middle and end” structure of them.

• Stories entertain and empower readers in a way that statistics and facts simply don’t. Stories help move people to action.

• People remember facts told in the context of a story better than in any other way.

I knew all this stuff well before Lehrer spoke, but then he told us –- guess what? — a story that quantified the impact.

An American scientist (sorry, I wasn’t taking notes, so I don’t have his name) brought a bunch of students into his lab and told them about a youth (Somalian, maybe?) who had suffered through the horrors of war. The story was graphic and tragic, and when the scientist asked for donations to help support this youth, he received an average of $8.10 from every student who attended.

Later, the scientist called in another group of students and told them a much more elaborate and accurate description of the plight of Somalian (?) youth. This report was very factual and detailed and presented a much bigger problem – not just the story of one young man, but the tale of a generation. You might be forgiven for expecting that when the scientist requested donations for such a cause he would receive much more money per student. But, no, the “macro” story generated donations of only 55 cents per person.

Thus, Lehrer quantified the power of stories. If cash-poor students can give $8.10 verus 55 cents, based on the power of a story alone, that tells you something about the importance of being personal, specific and detailed.

I’m not generally in the habit of favouring quotes from Joseph Stalin, but the Bolshevik summed it up aptly when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Stories matter. Use them in your writing.

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