My good friend, Chris Brogan, had an interesting blog post today that developed into a discussion about learning, and how learning was taking place in social media. This sparked several ideas in my head, and I felt I needed to write a post rather than just submit another comment.

What Are the Purposes of Stories?

People are really geared towards remembering stories. We tell stories with different levels of details, we sometimes alter the facts slightly to emphasize new points, and we tell stories to everyone in our lives- our kids, our friends, our business partners- everyone. Why?

First of all, let me say that I am not necessarily talking about fiction or non-fiction here. I am talking about stories as information contained within a narrative that has a story structure, such as a beginning, middle and end.

Stories parse complex information, facts, events and details into discrete, easily rememberable packages.

In its simplest form, the mnemonics we come up with in school to remember things like the order of the colors in the light spectrum (ROY G BIV) are just another way of parsing and remembering complex information in discrete chunks. It forms an index, if you will, to a folder elsewhere in your brain that contains the complete details you need to know.

Stories I tell my kids about when they were born, or silly things that have happened serve the larger purpose to share information (such as always cover up a new baby while changing them, or risk the Sprinkler syndrome) as well as promote a sense of family history, of play, and of bonding. We laugh, we feel good, we share.

Stories we tell to friends transfer information about personal experience and contain information on how to potentially handle a similar situation. The interaction that happens after you tell a friend about, say, a silly fight with your spouse, gives you feedback and support, and perhaps you exchange other information that changes how you view the event, or how you treat your spouse in the future.

For example, what happens when you tell a story about a bad interaction you had with “Joe” trying to schedule an appointment? The person hearing the story learns more about Joe, about how you relate to people like Joe, and might even tell you “Joe” is having a bad week because his grandma died, so he is not himself, which could totally change how you look at your interaction with “Joe”. All this complex, social data is exchanged through telling a simple story about what happened to you, data you would not have had otherwise. And you will store this data in a discrete chunk in a folder called “My Conversation About Joe to “Carrie” “that will help you remember to write a note to Joe about the loss of his Grandma, and when you could try again to have your meeting.

Stories we tell in business can be experiential, sharing information about how to fix a machine, or how to do something.  Or stories can be more about creating an impression and feeling in others.  A recent episode of Project Runway had Micheal Kors telling one of the designers that the creation “had no joy”.  This was a short hand way of saying that the clothes did not communicate a story or message that was compelling.

[Fashion, in fact, is probably a whole industry that at its core is about telling a story about an individual through what they choose to wear, and the impression/story it tells to others.  Does it say, “I don’t care how I Look?”  or does it say “I am an impeccable person, detailed oriented, and I am interested in impressing you ” or something else all together?]

We create who we are through the stories we tell in our lives, and in each arena.  But in the end, we have to realize we aren’t different people at work, at home, and at play- we are one, and our own meta-stories should reflect that larger truth.  And those stories will rely on more than just fact, but on the emotions we create in others as well.

The story compacts lots of data into a small, easy to remember packet, that can be taken out and used at a later date, kind of like a zip file for social data.  We end up becoming our own story, based on everything about us- how we dress, how we act, how we look, how we treat friends, how we treat business partners, who we like, who we don’t.

In the end, our memories are weird, complex things, that can store tons of data, but it has to be parsed efficiently. In order to learn and advance, we can’t learn everything for ourselves through trial and error, we have to learn to trust the experience of others, and we pass along this information in story form.

The goal should be to make your story the one friends want to share, and others want to be able to tell as well.  I’ll save my views on personal brands for another post, but remember that people learn and interact through story telling, so you need to do our best to make yours compelling and interesting.  And the secret is, once you can tell your own story, its easier to keep to the script, once you know who you are and what your strongest attributes are.

What do you think?  How do you tell your story?  What is it?