Must-See TEDx Video: If You Want Them To Remember, Tell A Story

JR: I’m a big fan of narratives and their rhetorical cousins, extended metaphors, as I discuss in my forthcoming book. This video is a must-see for those who want to be better communicators.

by Tom Smerling, via ClimateBites

After watching this TEDx clip, you may never want to stand before an audience again without pausing, at least once, to utter these seven magic words:

“Let me tell you a little story.”

But most advice about the importance of narrative comes from psychologists and communication consultants, not storytellers.   So here is a master storyteller, Bill Harley, talking about his life’s work, and sharing what he’s learned about why storytelling is so central to human understanding.

A small sample:

It has a power nothing else has. . .

I’m not talking just about literature and English.   I’m talking about history and astrophysics and biochemistry and law and mathematics.

All of those things are best explained through story. Because “story” is how we are reminded, and how we remember.   If we want it to be memorable, it must be a story. . .

We are not built to memorize lists, or unrelated facts. We are built to remember narrative.So try this the next time you are giving a lecture or a talk or standing in front of a bunch of people:    Stop in the middle of your offering of facts or your closely-reasoned argument, and say “Let me tell you a little story.”

And watch what happens. You see the faces relax, you see people reseat themselves in their chairs, and get ready. . . to hear . . . a story.

Harley’s points apply not only to public speeches, but to all climate communication, from written articles to interviews, blogs, and even dinner-table conversation.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy Bill Harley’s anecdotes.

If you want to look further into the art of climate storytelling, below are some suggestions for where to start:

  • There are two ways of thinking about climate storytelling

1) the overall narrative (aka storyline) you select to describe the problem and its solutions to a given audience.  There are many different approaches; ClimateBites has compiled 23 alternative ways to tell the climate story.

2) short, personal anecdotes used to draw the audience in and make your message stick.   For tips on becoming a better storyteller for any public cause, check out Andy Goodman’s work linked at “Numbers Numb, Jargon Jars.  And Nobody Ever Marched on Washington Because of a Pie Chart.

  • As role model for climate storytelling, nobody beats Dr. Richard Alley, host of PBS’s Earth: the Operators’ Manual.   That entire series is filled with great stories, and the book includes even more.   In this short clip Alley draws on his own life events to illustrate how ‘skeptics’ cherry-pick data, alaThe Escalator.”

— Tom Smerling is a climate communicator who formerly worked in the Special Projects Office of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. This piece was originally published at ClimateBites and was reprinted with permission.

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36 Responses to Must-See TEDx Video: If You Want Them To Remember, Tell A Story

  1. joyce says:

    Terrific. Thanks for including this topic in your blog. I, too, have found people much more responsive to stories than facts and figures–but best is finding a way to include them both!

  2. fj says:

    Stories are great and are early stages to developing machine views of the world equally fictitious but potentially many times more effective.

    And machines that can do the job; to paraphrase Amory Lovins: Something is not impossible if it already exists; something it seems that was a main driver of Buckminster Fuller and his work.

  3. Daniel says:

    TED talk by Tyler Cowen “Be suspicious of stories”:

  4. fj says:

    And natural systems interpreted as machines can serve as the most extraordinary resources for designing the future of civilization.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Yep, and that’s why a mediocre movie is seen by more people than ever read a best seller or watch a documentary. Suspense, fantasy, vicariously living through the actors- all are basic emotions.

    Lunz and the Republicans know this, which is why they invent a cabal or grant seeking scientists, or world government villains.

    Imagine what we could do with a story that’s based on the most powerful story that the human race will every experience. There are villains, great hazards, suspense, action on grand scales, and a chance for heroic redemption.

    Hollywood won’t touch it, because the major studios are hooked up with banks and corporations, and there is self censorship. We desperately need this movie. More than any single act, it could move us in the right direction.

  6. otter17 says:

    “Yo, listen to a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down…”

    Hey, it works!

    But seriously, we need to come up with a good story of a worldwide challenge, ending with solidarity and redemption, then live that story.

  7. Joe Romm says:

    Truly inane. But then consider his profession. Remember, maybe half of all ideas are wrong.

  8. fj says:

    Stories are buffering front-ends designed to address human consciousness. They omit lots of real-world data, chaos and noise to create a sense of causal meaning making ideas easy to understand.

    Machine methods like science, technology, and mathematics take this idea much further creating the perception of much more control and precision — even allows us to tell the future when we have a firm grasp on all the variables — and we have seen the results with our civilizations based on extraordinary advances in science and technology; unfortunately much, if not most, of which has not been designed, developed and deployed in the most rational manner; ultimately resulting in civilizations that have become extremely destructive.

  9. Great post. thank you.

    We also know that it is quite difficult to move and change. Easier to remember and to know but very hard to act and decisively change.

    The tragedy is the momentum of inaction is often easier than the disruption of change.

  10. Icarus says:

    “All of those things are best explained through story. Because “story” is how we are reminded, and how we remember. If we want it to be memorable, it must be a story…”

    And that’s the main reason why the BBC’s ‘Earth Story’ was the best TV science series ever made.

  11. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    I’d like to share a story – retell it, actually. It’s E. O. Wilson’s story as told in his book, “The Social Conquest of Earth”. It’s his story, but I’ll retell it in my own words, and without referring to the book. I’m retelling it here because it’s appropriate to this blog’s main theme.
    If ET’s had landed here 100 million years ago they would have thought the ants and termites to be the most interesting species on earth,for they had already developed colonies and societies. But ET’s would have thought that, because of their small body mass, ants and termites wouldn’t continue evolving into intelligent beings capable of… well, what we’re capable of… godlike technologies; science, mathematics and a curiosity that leads us to ponder who we are, what is our purpose, and how did it all start.
    OTOH, the small furry creatures from whom we evolved wouldn’t have impressed the ET’s very much. They never would have predicted that, from these early mammals, would evolve homo sapiens… like us. The probability of those furry mammals passing through the evolutionary maze and popping our as us was vanishingly small. But here we are. How did we do it? According to E. O. Wilson, it’s because we evolved via DNA changes that drove us to consume, spread, socialize, war, and consume and spread some more. And it’s because of the very DNA we evolved that allowed us to thread the needle that we are, today, in the quagmire we’re in – that is, we and the resources upon which we depend are unsustainable. Wilson doesn’t think we’ll be able to overcome our DNA programming, make the necessary changes, and survive.
    And now I need someone else to tell a different story.

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    fj, have you ever considered that it is the machine or mechanistic, ‘rational’, world view of everything that has proven destructive? Natural systems, including people, are not, and do not behave like, machines. Continuing to view them mechanistically, i.e. erroneously, can only result in further damage, ME

  13. Mike Roddy says:

    Wilson is a great scientist, but predicting human behavior and adaptation is a lot tougher than knowing how many ppm our machinery will spew into the atmosphere. Giving up is not an option. Human adaptations occur in spurts, too, from creative and accidental sources.

    This behavioral change could happen in the next few decades, driven, as usual, from below. When it does, the fossil fuel/logging/ag chemical crowd will be marginalized and irrelevant, and we could finally go forward.

  14. Old Uncle Dave says:

    If you want someone to *really* remember something, tell them in song. The addition of a tune makes something more memorable. The fastest way to teach a child his address and phone number is to put it in a song.

  15. fj says:

    Yes, I think this is what I was trying to say.

    The blind belief in a mechanistic world is not necessarily rational. Only humans make machines.

    Machines are application specific and do not deal with all real-world data, chaos and noise, and it’s necessary to know the limitations of machines and they very often do not address things critical to what they were designed to do.

    I think one prime example is the design of modes of transportation which are currently awful and should much more closely follow human mobility which has evolved over billions of years since mobility seems to be extremely important to most living things.

    Scale is probably the most important aspect and our mobility machines are many times too large, heavy, powerful, expensive, and are bad designs that ultimately do not provide for good human mobility.

    Vehicles that are designed to be easily powered by human power are probably the best ones for moving people if they are “informed” from natural systems as much as possible while providing minimal environmental footprints.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Humanity made its prime error, probably its fatal one, when it decided to concentrate on material externalities rather than moral, ethical, cultural and spiritual cultivation of the self and inner values. The apotheosis of the greedy materialist way of life is neo-liberal capitalism, and its coteries of kleptocrat billionaires, who we are instructed to admire and seek to emulate by their MSM brainwashing apparatus, while the bulk of humanity scrabbles in the dust for crumbs, and the apocalypse hurries near. If we are to survive and not just get ourselves in some new pickle, our stories had better be ones where the ‘heroes’ are meek, self-effacing, compassionate and generous.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If I read or see acted works by Balzac, Dickens, Zola, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Sophocles etc, all the great writers and moral teachers, I experience the wrestling of the enlightened conscience with the travails of life, and the search for spiritual enlightenment and redemption. Shakes gets a little nihilistic at times, and I do like Celine despite his cynicism, but great literature is transcendant, and attempts to make a statement about existence, its mysteries, terrors and delights. Unfortunately the world is increasingly run by third-raters enamoured of fifth-raters like Ayn Rand, whose pernicious scribblings are marginally less repulsive, in my opinion, than Mein Kampf. For Hitler the enemy was the Jews (and others)-for Rand and her devotees, the ‘moochers’ ie us.

  18. fj says:

    Yes, rationality is machine like and is a wonderful ongoing story and theme surrounding the character Spock in Star Trek.

    But, cognitive tools, machines, like language, stories, education, mathematics, the arts, are all extremely important for advancing humanity.

    I find the way all this stuff works together to be quite “magical” and amazing; and the designers of the future must be very sensitive, even intuitive, “artistic”; building within the natural world for natural beings like humans.

    And, I do not believe this is as complicated or difficult to do as it might seem.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Here’s hoping you are correct and we have world enough left, and time enough to achieve it. If we put an end to egomaniacal greed and materialism and hatred and fear of others as the drivers of our ‘civilization’ we could do just about anything. If not, we are going to destroy ourselves within the lifetime of the majority of the current human population.

  20. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Mike, that is essentially Paul Gilding’s story as told in “The Great Disruption”. Paul expects human adaption to the change in environment to result in our next evolutionary leap. He also expects all of mankind to unite in a battle against GHG emissions and keep the temperature rise to 1C or less. One thing about futuristic stories is that parts are believable (evolutionary leap) while others are hard to accept (1C).

  21. Makan says:

    Yes, the power of the metaphor… Shelling peas builds resilience…

  22. fj says:

    Actually, supposedly, the best way for people to remember something to the point where it is an actionable memory is for them to make the connections and figure it out for themselves; as mentioned by Daniel Kahneman in his “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

    So Bill McKibben’s and’s “Connect The Dots” is likely a well-informed strategy to get people to act on accelerating climate change.

  23. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    I can’t remember who said the following, but, “The best way to convince someone that your idea is the best is to make them think it was their idea in the first place.”

  24. fj says:

    Absolutely, a proven technique, probably written about many times.

    Taking ownership is very effective.

  25. fj says:

    The complexity of this stuff is absolutely wonderful producing a kind of solipsistic reverie.

    I don’t necessarily agree that story is all important and might prefer to think of it as more of a graphical user interface to human consciousness.

    Our sense of causality is much more fundamental and perhaps story provides the first accessible structuring of this very strange notion.

    But, it is really important that people are well-informed, can function in seeming chaos and not stop down and have to depend on pure myths; this is a major strength and weakness of the many if not most of the world’s religions dependent on stories; creating an extraordinary empowering dependency where unfortunately, on which too many become over dependent.

    The pedagogy, the broad breadth of experience, the ability to learn rapidly and extensively, to be able to create, to be able to deal with lots and lots of information effectively, and much more . . . and to be able to function and even find occasional comfort, excitement, joy in chaos . . . perhaps provides a marvelous intelligent trajectory for the advance of humanity.

  26. Anon Teacher says:

    I teach physics. Over the past few years, growing frustrated with apathetic students, I have tried to change my framing of the subject, attempting to give it more of a narrative. Specifically, I start the course by giving some history, going all the way back to ancient Greece, and specifically Aristotle. I try to outline Aristotle’s mistakes, especially regarding the principles of motion. Aristotle assumed that to move, objects must be pushed, something at wouldn’t be properly corrected until Newton. This mistaken reasoning was intertwined with popular beliefs that the Sun had to be “pushed” to move across the sky, necessitating the existence of gods to do this pushing. With Kepler’s and Newton’s discoveries about the Sun and Earth, gods were no longer necessary to describe the Sun’s motion.

    In giving such history, I am trying to frame science as a grand journey of discovery, one that began long ago. I think that this helps students derive something of a purpose in their studies, a purpose far more motivating than simply “getting a job” and making money. Telling students that the main purpose in their explorations is simply to make money is soul destroying. There most be a narrative.

  27. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes, that used to be common knowledge and widely applied, ME

  28. I tend to agree with W.O. Wilson that humans may not make it, our life as a species most likely ended by killing our host planet’s biosphere through runaway global warming. It’s an irony almost beyond endurance that there is actually a way out, that Gaia’s antropogenically-induced fever could be reversed by sequestering CO2 by planting trees and making biochar. My numbers indicate that only 130 million people worldwide, working part-time, could eventually sequester one year’s worth of CO2 emissions in six months using step-harvesting, gradually beginning on year six after the first plantings. That includes tree-planters, tree nursery workers, biochar makers, and terra neo-preta gardeners. In addition to tree-planting on non-agricultural land, the deserts can be regreened using inward-spiraling, proven permacultural methods pioneered by Geoff Lawton in the Dead Sea region. There is now a handful of methods for regreening deserts, depending on prevailing winds and type of desert.
    This kind of “green geo-engineering” would be a source of real wealth, with payback times in the order of ten to fifteen years to initial investments in carbon credit futures. However, the longer it takes for this idea to become a serious topic of conversation at climate summits, the closer we get to a global climate that no longer allows tree planting, or for that matter, agriculture…
    A rich genre of storytelling can be based around these ideas. I believe at this point in time that only the artists can save us by mobilizing awareness, public opinion, investor interest, and political will.

    Ref: The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates.

    Disclaimer: I’m a friend of Albert’s.

  29. fj says:

    Once you get beyond the basic formalism in physics, and perhaps all subjects, things start getting real interesting; totally mind blowing in fact.

    Look at the fundamentals and then look at the advanced ideas how these fundamentals are applied and fit in the systems they supposedly support and you may start to see that a lot of this stuff does not make sense.

    This stuff might have advanced the field terrifically and there may have been terrific successes; but, when you look at whole systems you might find terrific mysteries and you may even be amazed that this stuff works at all.

    All this stuff we’ve created is based on cognitive tools and the natural world and it is absolutely amazing.

    If you can relay this to your students you will be introducing to them the extraordinary nature of intelligence, humanity, and the natural world that cultivates it and perhaps something very difficult not to be excited about.

  30. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Stories are powerful.

    Parables in the Bible, Aesop’s fables and those authors that Mulga mentioned convey complex moral themes in a way that even the simple minded can understand.

    A simple story can blow away the most complex theology by illustrating its ridiculousness. A story can do more to build understanding than the most erudite discourse.

  31. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    The stories we tell have a way of taking care of us.

    The Wind in the WIllows

  32. Joan Savage says:

    It has been awhile but I think my first post on CP was about how we are at a critical stage in the story of Sleeping Beauty.

    The Bad Fairy has delivered her curse (death by spinning wheel – ah factories!). Only one Good Fairy is left to modify the worst of the curse, so she will allow the Earth to sleep long until such day as a worthy Prince may awaken her again.

  33. fj says:

    For example:

    A Briefer History of Time


  34. Anon Teacher says:

    I agree that physics gets quite amazing as one progresses. I recall having to pick my jaw off my desk several times when taking intro third year quantum. Then there is Feynman’s example where you steal 10% of your neighbours electrons, and the force of attraction between you and your neighbour is equal to the weight of the entire Earth!

    However, my instinct is not to motivate students merely by flashy shocking examples. I do not want to be merely an entertainer. I believe it is preferable for students to seek knowledge for its own sake, to take joy in discovering truth in the world simply because it is true. I believe that giving a narrative structure to this science might help in this regard.

  35. fj says:

    A favorite is Feynman’s description of his Nobel Prize Winning renormalization theory as mere sleight of hand.

  36. fj says:

    Another favorite making advanced discovery outright fun and very accessible comes from — the often times quite funny — James D. Watson; and, how someone can truly mark his or her place in history, civilization, and the understanding of the natural world.

    The Double Helix

    A Personal Account of the Discovery of

    “Of course there were scientists who thought the evidence favoring DNA was inconclusive and preferred to believe that genes were protein molecules. Francis, however, did not worry about these skeptics. Many were cantankerous fools who unfailingly backed the wrong horses. One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”

    (page 14)

    Francis Crick as you may know was a physicist and spent his last days with neurobiologist Christof Koch collaborating to help produce his work “Quest for Consciousness,” detailing some of the neuronal correlates of consciousness.