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The Seven Differences Between Stories and Concepts

Stories are powerful. They have been used since prehistoric times and have an important role in the modern organization.
But most business leaders have been trained not to talk in stories. Instead, they have been trained to talk in bullet points, to “cut to the chase,” to get to the core concept.
As a result, stories can appear to leaders in organizations as, at best, needlessly verbose and time-consuming and, at worst, artsy and utterly unbusinesslike. So how can we interest business leaders in expanding their communication options?
I have found that one way to bridge the gulf between their familiar conceptual communication and storytelling is to explain in conceptual terms what stories are and how they work. In other words, I try to translate the workings of story into the “native language” of the business world: the linear, analytic language of the conceptual.
To do so, I describe seven differences between story communication, on the one hand, and conceptual talk, on the other. What follows is a version of a talk I give to business and non-profit groups.
I begin with my version of a true story:
France. The 1950′s. A poet, Jacques Prevért, was walking down the street. On the pavement, he saw a man sitting on a blanket. In front of the man was a hat with a few coins in it. Propped up next to him was a cardboard sign: “Blind. No pension. Please give.”
The poet said, “How is it going for you?”
“Not well. People are stingy. They rush by without stopping.”
“Maybe I can help,” the poet said. “May I change your sign?”
“Change it?” The beggar hesitated. “Well, write on the back. I can always turn it over again.”
The beggar heard the scratching of the poet’s pen on the cardboard sign.
A few days later, the poet returned. He said, “How is it going now?”
“Fantastic! People have become so much more generous. I have to empty my hat three times every day!”
“I am so glad. Well, good luck to you.’ The poet turned to leave.
“Wait,” said the beggar. “What did you write on my sign?”
The poet paused. “I wrote something very simple,” he said. “I wrote, ‘Spring is coming, but I will not see it.’”∗
One value of a story is that it can transform the purely informative into an experience that can change a listener’s point of view. The beggar’s original sign had all the necessary information and even a “call to action.” But the poet’s version caused the passersby to participate in the beggar’s point of view. Only then were they motivated to act.
In this article, I will explain seven characteristics of story communication that distinguish it from your customary, conceptual communication and contribute to its particular form of effectiveness. These characteristics will also help you understand when not to tell a story.
But before I can begin, I ask you, the reader of this article, to close your eyes for a moment and answer a question about your experience of the above story: In your mind, what color were the clothes the beggar was wearing?
It’s okay if you don’t have an answer. But please notice whether you do. And if you didn’t imagine the color of the beggar’s clothes, how was he sitting? Or what was the color of the blanket he was sitting on? Or were there buildings on the street around him? (If so, how tall? If not, what was there?)
Almost everyone fills in one or more such details, spontaneously and effortlessly, in the course of listening to the story. That means that they actively create images in their minds.
By the way, your images may not have been visual. Did you hear sounds of the streets? Did you imagine the sound of the beggar’s voice? Or the poet’s? Did you imagine the sound of the pen scratching? These are auditory images. But you may have also have created tactile images (the cardboard sign in the poet’s hand) or smells, or kinesthetic feelings (the poet bending over to talk, or the beggar’s gut wrenched with anger or hopelessness). In other words, you may have created images in various sensory modes.
All seven of the following differences between story talk and conceptual talk stem from this central fact that, in response to story talk, listeners create images based on their own experiences and predilections. The unique powers of storytelling do not stem directly from what the story-teller does, but rather from what the story-listener does: create mental images.
When you listen to a story, you actively create images. You are in creation mode.
When you listen to conceptual talk, on the other hand, you are in evaluation mode. You are comparing and contrasting what someone else says to what you already know.
These two modes, it turns out, put people in different frames of mind. In one psychological experiment, for example, three groups of people were given five one-dollar bills and a choice of how many of them to contribute to a worthy cause. Before being asked to give some of their money, one group was given a conceptual task, another was given no task, and the third was given a task that involved calling up images.
Which group gave the fewest dollars? Those who had been put in conceptual mode. Which gave the most? Those in image mode.
So putting people in creation mode can be useful, not just for getting them to participate imaginatively but also for changing their attitude toward you and what you are describing.
The essence of a story is a concrete, unique event: in one place, at one moment, one character makes one action. For example, in a French street, one day a poet speaks to a beggar.
The essence of concepts, on the other hand, is abstraction. The power of concepts comes from things that apply to many situations, not just one.
Stories are closer to experience. After all, we only live one moment at a time. But concepts express what applies to many experiences.
The concrete is not better than the abstract (and vice versa). Stories and concepts are two different ways of thinking and communicating. Each one of them is like a leg. It can support you. You can move around on either one. But you move much more effortlessly and efficiently when you alternate gracefully between them.
When I said at the start of this article, “Stories are powerful,” I was speaking conceptually. This abstract concept, though, may possibly have invoked in your mind a particular time when you experienced the power of stories. In other words, concepts are abstract in nature but may sometimes cause you to think of a specific experience.
Conversely, stories are specific but may cause you to form an abstract conclusion. You may hear the beggar-poet interaction and then say, “Yes, there are times when it makes sense to make a situation personal for the public so they can relate to it more.” That’s a concept that you may have created from the example of the beggar.
Therefore, if you want people to reach a conclusion (such as “This is an excellent product and will be a good value for my company”) the best way may not be to simply state it. Why? Because the statement tends to put them in evaluation mode. They may immediately jump to “Well, maybe it’s not. Prove it!” If this happens, they will have put their minds in opposition to the very conclusion you want them to reach.
But if you tell a concrete story, your listeners will often create their own abstract conclusion from it. If you tell the story of your product (or of someone who has used it), for example, they may conclude, “This sounds excellent. I can see our company getting good value from it.”
We tend to assume that the most effective way to get people to accept a concept is to simply state it. But it is often more efficient to tell a story that will cause them to formulate the concept themselves. After all, the conclusion that they create is the one they will act on most readily.
Since story-listeners create images and then endow them with meanings, they feel a form of ownership of the meanings that they create in response to a story. Therefore we can say that, in story communication, the listener is the owner of the meaning.
But when you hear a concept, it belongs to the one saying it. Initially, you evaluate the speaker’s meaning. Later, you may accept it as your own, but at the moment of communication it still belongs to the person expressing it. In other words, in conceptual communication, the speaker owns the meaning.
This has enormous impact when it comes to the question of buy-in and of commitment to a course of action. People tend to remember and act on their own ideas, not on yours. Therefore, if you want people to act on your idea, help them make it their own. One way is by telling them a story and then trusting them to interpret it.
When a concept is communicated well, the meaning is well shared. No short sentence can transmit a complex meaning exactly, but if you know what I mean by “stories” and by “powerful,” then the sentence “stories are powerful” is likely to be understood with a relatively high precision—that is, with a fairly narrow range of interpretations of meaning, among the people listening.
But with stories, the precision is small. That is, the range of meanings received is relatively wide. In other words, the meanings are diverse rather than shared.
This means that if you need instantaneous, shared meaning, you should not tell a story! For example, if your message is, “The bus is on fire. Get off now!” then you should not begin, “One day, long ago….”
But later, when the bus fire is out, when everyone has safely reached the destination, and when you are helping people figure out how, in the future, they could each help prevent a future fire, then you can create individual buy-in by telling the story of how the fire happened.
The trade-off for increased commitment (or participation or creativity) from people is almost always decreased control of exactly what people do. Conversely, increased control usually reduces things like commitment. In every encounter, use a mix of the two forms of communication to create the best balance between shared meaning and listener buy-in.
Conceptual communication gives the listener the literal meaning of the concepts. The conceptual statement, “Our highest value is customer service,” tells you the relationship the speaker is positing between our company and customer service. But it doesn’t give you an experiential context in which to interpret that relationship. That’s why I say that concepts convey a literal (as opposed to contextual) scope for a meaning.
Stories, though, are not removed from experience. By describing actual or imagined experience, they include a context in which concepts are turned into actions. So, when new Nieman Marcus employees hear as part of their training the story of the clerk who gave a complete refund—without a receipt—for a set of tires, the employees get a more specific idea of what is meant by valuing customer service above all. And when they are told further that Nieman Marcus never sold tires, they have an example that suggests an even broader interpretation of what they might be expected to do in order to act on the high value attached to customer service.
Both forms of communication give benefits here: the pure concept gives maximum portability of an idea, but at the cost of understanding how to apply it. The story, on the other hand, makes it easier to know how to apply a concept in a real-life situation, but may limit the concept to what is directly implied in the example. To be most effective, flexibly combine the two forms of communication!
We can respond emotionally to concepts. If you work for me and I say, “Our profits are down 50% and we have to do layoffs,” you are likely to care about that! Nonetheless, any emotional response to concepts is primarily “reactive”: listeners have feelings in reaction to a fact or idea.
In stories, though, you follow the point of view of a character through one or more actions. In the beggar-poet story, you perceive the world alternately from the poet’s point of view and from the beggar’s. And so your emotional reaction is empathic: You see, hear, and feel the world as that character does.
In your business or other organization, when you need people to change how they view and do things, you need them to have a new perspective, an altered way of viewing the world. The only way to get someone to accept a new perspective is to give them a new experience—either a real experience or, in the case of stories, a virtual, imaginative experience that nonetheless expands their repertory of points of view.
We have learned from brain studies that emotion not only motivates action but actually enables reasoning. As a result, trying to motivate and explain without also creating empathy is a losing battle. And stories are a key tool for creating empathic emotional reactions.
Each of these seven differences between stories and concepts (summarized in Table 1) suggests times when each form of communication is more appropriate. When you understand what each mode of communication offers, you can choose, at each moment, which to employ. Skillful business leaders have a command of both modes. They are also adept at flexibly alternating between the two to achieve their business goals.
How about you? Is your beggar’s sign factually accurate but unmotivating? Are you content to walk on only one leg?

Table 1: Summary of the Seven Differences

Stories Concepts
1. Mode of Listening Creation Evaluation
2. Essence Unique event:
• one moment,
• one character,
• one place,
• one action Abstract commonalities:
what many events (etc.) have in common
3. Causes & Effects The specific
which may lead to the general The general
which may evoke the particular
4. Owner of Meaning The Listener The Speaker
5. Precision of Meaning Diverse
(wider range) Shared
(narrower range)
6. Scope of Meaning Contextual Literal (“Textual”)
7. Emotional Responses Empathic Reactive

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