A Lifehacker post by Leo Widrich said you should tell a story instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. Widrich did not make his point using stories. He made the written equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation. He wasn’t trying to be funny — at least, not that I could tell.
This semester I’m teaching a class on Academic Writing. Yesterday’s class marked the switch from personal statements to other sorts of writing. I decided to mark the transition with a lecture. I had just one piece of advice for my students: tell a story. For fun, and to avoid the oddity of Widrich’s presentation, I decided to make my point two ways: without and with stories.
The without-stories presentation was obvious. I wrote “Tell a Story” on the board and gave several reasons why it was a good idea.
The with-stories presentation was not obvious. I told several stories:
1. The morning of the class, I was listening to a C-SPAN podcast – an interview of S. Lochlann Jain, a Stanford professor of anthropology who had written a book about cancer. She herself had had cancer. The interviewer asked: When you got the diagnosis, what did you need? It was a good question. But Jain did not answer it. Instead, she pontificated for a few minutes. It was unfortunate. That answer was like the rest of the interview (she pontificated a lot) and I soon turned it off. She could have told a story, I told my students, but she didn’t. And she lost me.
2. I came to understand the power of stories while teaching introductory psychology. My classes were large, hundreds of students. I discovered that to get their attention all I needed to do was tell a story. Within seconds, they would start to pay attention. The lecture hall would become quiet. If I stopped telling a story, I would start to lose them. I could see their eyes wander. That’s how I came to teach all my classes: tell one story after another. One of my students told me I was “the professor who tells stories”.
3. One day I was in the biology building on the Berkeley campus. It contains many small classrooms. From the outside, you can hear what the instructor is saying. I listened to five classes. In none of them was the teacher telling a story. Apparently most Berkeley professors hadn’t figured out this basic principle.
4. I attended a high school graduation in Los Angeles. Very expensive private school. There were six speakers, four students, a teacher, and the headmaster. No one told any stories. I was astonished. It’s really hard to be a graduation speaker. This simple rule (tell stories) makes it much easier. None of them knew it. I was especially surprised that the headmaster, who speaks at graduation every year, failed to understand this. Failing to tell stories in this situation is like choosing to crawl when you could walk.
5. A remarkable thing about stories is that anyone can tell one — or not tell one. The weakest person can tell a story, the most powerful person can fail to tell one. When President Obama was elected, it was very uncertain whether he would be a good President. He had so little experience. I used his inauguration speech to guess how good he would be. If he understood politics, he would tell stories; if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. In fact, he didn’t. Five years later, my low expectations have been borne out. Chinese politicians, as far as I can tell, are not clearly better than President Obama. At the beginning of a student talent show at Tsinghua, a Tsinghua administrator gave a short and boring speech. He too failed to tell stories.
I said it made sense that we pay attention to stories much more than to other things. Stories are fundamentally honest. They contain evidence. If you draw a conclusion, fine — your evidence for that conclusion is clear. You are not overstating your case. Without evidence, anyone can say anything. I also said it is to your benefit to tell a story rather than argue or reason or pontificate. You will appear modest and considerate.
I asked my students to compare the two ways (without and with stories) I had made the same point. There were three possible answers: 1. without stories better. 2. equal. 3. with stories better. Their votes:
without stories better: 1 vote
equal: 2 votes
with stories better: 6 votes.
My students said they had not been taught this. Their teachers — in high school and at Tsinghua — did/do not teach this way nor had they made the general point I was making.
Thanks to Dave Lull.