Telling Good Stories: How to Use the Elements of Narrative to Keep Listeners Engaged
In this podcast episode, we discuss how to foster a sense of empathy and connection through storytelling.
“Make them want to turn the page,” says Paula Moya, a professor at Stanford University and author of The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism.
In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Moya sits down with strategic communication lecturer Matt Abrahams to share how the elements of story can be used in other types of communication. Create compelling situations, full of suspense and surprise, she says. Create characters we can empathize with; speak your written sentences aloud, and, Moya advises, think of the images your words may conjure, and how they may be interpreted by different audiences.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: We all know that a good story can move us, make us feel something, teach us something, help us be better at something. But can a story literally move us, that is get us to move and be healthy? Today, we’ll learn the answer to this question and many other best practices for what makes a good story. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.
We are so lucky today to be joined by Paula Moya. Paula is the Danily and Laura Louise Bell professor of the humanities and a professor of English at Stanford. She also is a recipient of the Dean’s Award for distinguished teaching. Paula has several books on the market, the most recent being the social imperative, race, close reading and contemporary literary criticism.
For the past two years, she’s been part of a research project that investigates and validates using narrative to encourage individuals to increase their activity levels to improve health span. Welcome, Paula. I am so eager to work with you.
Paula Moya: Thank you, Matt. I’m so glad to be here and to have an opportunity to chat with you.
Matt Abrahams: Great. Let’s get started. Before we get into some of the really cool ways you’re using stories to motivate people, I’d like to start with some general questions about stories. You are a narratologist. I’d never heard that term before. Can you define what that means? And what do you do?
Paula Moya: [laughs] Well, narratology basically is just the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these things affect human perception. So a narratologist basically is just someone who does the studying. You know, I’ve always loved reading. And I’m captivated by stories. So it’s been my pleasure over the last decade or so to be able to spend time thinking about what makes narratives work.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, a whole field I was unaware of. So as somebody who studied narratives as deeply as you have, I’m curious. From your perspective, what makes a good narrative or story?
Paula Moya: I guess I’d have to say that a lot depends on what anyone means by good. Right. So [laughs] I love many different kinds of stories. And I know that they all draw on different kinds of elements to give them their value. But the basic elements of a story — we can start there — of a story or a narrative or plot — so like what happens — characters, points of view, or perspective — and that relates to focalization; setting, like where it’s located; scene, kind of basically what they’re talking about; and of course, style.
So conflict is also central to any story because there always needs to be something that kind of gets the story going and powers the events that occur. So these elements will always be present in any particular story, albeit in different combinations and with different emphases.
So you know, a good story or narrative will have all of those. But it’s important to note, from my perspective, that what one person defines as good may be very different from what some other person defines as good. So what good is will be very much influenced by what someone knows, what they value, what they love and also what they recognize.
And this is sometimes cultural, right, based on where someone grew up, what they are accustomed to doing in their daily lives. And it’s also sometimes learned, right, based on what we’re taught in school. Right. What did our teachers tell us or even what someone we admire says is good so maybe a preacher or a mother or an aunt. So for example, those of us who read a lot of stories or consume a lot of narratives — and so I count myself among one of those —
Matt Abrahams: Sure.
Paula Moya: — because I’m always reading or watching some serial or something. You know, when we do that, we can easily become bored by characters that we perceive as stock characters or plots that are predictable. You know, if you read enough narratives, you start to recognize certain particular terms.
And we get bored by them because we’ve seen them too many times before. And they contain for us no surprises. At the same time, for someone else, that same story can be fresh and interesting. So my answer kind of to like what’s good — what makes a good narrative is that a story is good if someone somewhere values it as good. Now, it just might not be good for me. [laughs] And I’m making a larger point about the existence of multiple conceptions of the good.
Matt Abrahams: Certainly. I hear you talking about several things. For example, you need to think about who your story is for and what’s going to be interesting —
Paula Moya: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: — relevant and exciting for them.
Paula Moya: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: And you need to be careful, I heard, also of falling into the trap of using common clichés or common ways of telling the story or designing the story. I heard you talk about surprise. I heard you talk about a novelty — or at least I’m applying novelty to what you said — to really make it something —
Paula Moya: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: — that stands out. Would you agree with those?
Paula Moya: I would completely agree with that. So it’s kind of a mix of making it familiar, which we like — just as human beings psychologically, we have a kind of principle familiarity that drives us — and also making it new, making it a little surprising, giving us something that is not predictable.
But this kind of goes back to the first thing that you picked up on which is that we always have to think about who this narrative is for because it’s going to be — you know, what’s going to work is going to be different according to who it’s for.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. And that is a theme we have heard many times on this podcast about really reflecting on our audience for our communication. Should we approach crafting stories meant to be read differently from those that we speak?
Paula Moya: Absolutely. I really agree with that because — you know it is. If you’re listening to a story, you might need a heavier dose of repetition to help your listener keep track of what is happening. So you see this in sort of storytelling cultures where there’s often a great deal of repetition. And they come back to certain kinds of motifs such as a certain image or a certain color.
And you know, if you’re listening to a story, you can’t go back and look something up. Right. You need the storyteller to help you by drawing you along with these repeated motifs, these repeated words and also reminders of who is who and how they are related to other characters. And I think it’s probably a little easier to have a more complex narrative in writing than listening.
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm. I really want to emphasize this point. In the work that I do, there’s a really big challenge that people have. They write as if they’re writing their content to be read. And then, they speak it. And it just sounds different. It doesn’t connect in the same way.
Paula Moya: [laughs]
Matt Abrahams: A lot of the ideas that you suggested — those are all things that can really help a story stand out when spoken and, similarly, might seem redundant or repetitive or short-sighted in a written piece. So the big message is we have to envision writing for speaking and writing for being read as very different things. And I think that point is super important.
Paula Moya: It absolutely is. And I’m glad that you are articulating it so clearly. I need to learn from you, Matt. [laughter]
Matt Abrahams: No. Well, I do a lot of speaking. So I repeat myself a lot, much to my family’s dismay.
Paula Moya: But let me just say one more thing about that is that always, when we’re thinking about communicating, we need to think about the medium. Like so how is it that we are — what is the medium through which we are communicating? So obviously, a novel is a different medium than, say, you know, a story circle where you’re sitting around talking to people. The medium, really that is — makes it so important to sort of shift how you do something if you want to communicate well.
Matt Abrahams: So true. I cannot tell you the number of times I see people try to tell stories through bullet points on PowerPoint slides. And it’s the wrong medium. It’s the wrong tool to get your message across. And I really appreciate that advice. I’d like to turn to your research. Your research and writings focus on race and culture. Do you have any guidance on how we can be more inclusive of diversity and the stories we choose to tell and how we actually craft those stories?
Paula Moya: Well, I think probably the easiest way, the most simple way to be inclusive of diversity is also the most obvious way. That is to write or consume stories about those people, places, events and dilemmas that are, for the most part, absent or underrepresented in the mainstream of society. So there are not, for example, sufficient representations of Latinx people in the media, television, theater, the movies and journalism, to give a true and accurate picture of the richness and the complexity of Latino life.
This is not to say that there is none, just to say that there is a dearth of such representation relative to the number of Latinx people living in this country. And unfortunately, many of the representations of Latinx people are quite negative and stereotypical and so not representative of the wide range of experiences of people who are associated with that ethnicity.
Matt Abrahams: So it certainly sounds to me like, if you’re looking to be more inclusive in the stories you tell, you need to tell stories that include people. That, by definition, I think, is what we’re talking about. But we also have to be sensitive to what we represent and what we tell those stories about.
So it’s not just including people in the stories. It’s what those stories are about and the focus and what they — the message they send beyond the story itself. And that’s really important for all of us to think about. As we live in a more diverse culture, it’s critical to hear the stories and voices of everyone. You were part of a very cool interdisciplinary team looking at the role of narrative in motivating positive health behavior. Can you tell us briefly about The Perfecto Project?
Paula Moya: So The Perfecto Project is actually an extension of a larger project involving a very large interdisciplinary team at Stanford University that has been researching the effectiveness in motivating mobility of narrative-based feedback that is delivered on the ambient screen of an android smartphone.
So basically, that just means it’s a mobility app that helps take the user through a narrative. And as the user exercises or walks or does some kind of physical activity, the story moves along. So they help [tower] the story in that sense.
Matt Abrahams: It sounds to me like it’s a fitness tracker, the data from which actually moves you through a story. And that story serves to help motivate even more movement. Is that right?
Paula Moya: That’s exactly right. So what we’re trying to do is create a narrative that’s interesting enough that the person wants to do their exercise, so they can get the next chapter.
Matt Abrahams: Wow. I think, for the listeners, this notion of thinking about creating stories that you share as a leader, as a participant of teams that are culturally relevant and the fact that you are finding that the notion that a story can serve as motivation for any behavior potentially is really a fascinating one.
As part of the work you just described, I read that there seems to be a link between motivation and empathy for characters and stories. Can you describe this association and any guidance that it might suggest for those of us trying to motivate others through the stories we tell?
Paula Moya: Well, I do think empathy where we feel for others as well things like recognition where we maybe see characters that remind us of ourselves are very important for how stories affect listeners and readers because one very basic psychological phenomenon is familiarity, which is simply a form of remembering and with a situation and event, a person, a place or the like provokes a subjective feeling of recognition.
So it’s like, yes, you know, I’ve been at that tamale-making party. I’ve been at that birthday party where we break a piñata. So it doesn’t have to be perfect. But it brings something of ourselves to us. And I think being recognized makes us feel good, feel valued. It makes us feel a sense of belonging.
Matt Abrahams: This notion of helping people feel what you’re talking about is familiar to them is really interesting. It really speaks to the need to demonstrate that you understand people’s experience and help them see how they can change that experience, enhance that experience, etcetera.
So this notion of using empathy to demonstrate familiarity, I think, is a really interesting tool for those of us who craft communications to have in our toolkit. Do you have a favorite tool that you listen for or look for in what you write or you read? For example, I do. I love alliteration. I’m curious. Do you have any tools you find that you gravitate towards in narratives that you write or listen to?
Paula Moya: You know, that’s a very interesting question. I’m not sure that I think of it as programmatically that, like these are my tools. But I definitely use alliteration. I find it very effective. So a modicum of repetition, alliteration — I will often speak my written sentences aloud to see how they sound to me.
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Paula Moya: And then, of course, thinking about images — I’m very attentive to the use of certain words and also not reinforcing certain associations that have been negative, for instance, for people of color.
Matt Abrahams: The tools you shared are really helpful for all of us to think about. Before we get to our closing, I am curious if you have any last best practices on how to craft better stories to motivate our audiences.
Paula Moya: Clearly, an author or a storyteller needs to create compelling situations and dilemmas full of suspense and surprise because those are things that give us joy. They also need to create characters in whom we are interested, whether it be because the characters — we see ourselves in them or because we care about them or feel empathy for them or because they operate in a field of action that in some way intrigues us, maybe even scares us.
Matt Abrahams: Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody. Sound okay?
Paula Moya: Yeah. Sure.
Matt Abrahams: All right. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five-to-seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Paula Moya: Make them want to turn the page.
Matt Abrahams: I really like that. So it’s building intrigue.
Paula Moya: Now, granted that — it is an eight-word sentence, I think. But you know, I’m not sure who I got this from. It might have been like Margaret Atwood. But you know, if you’re reading a novel, like you want to know either because the character or the situation or whatever, you want to know what’s going to happen.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. It’s building suspense and intrigue. And that’s important in all communication. Let me ask you question number two. Who is a communicator that you admire? And why?
Paula Moya: I would say that Margaret Atwood is an amazing communicator.
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Paula Moya: She is an amazing novelist. I eagerly seek out anything she writes. She is a beautiful user of language. She could make me envision the world that she was putting together. And she also was not afraid to make difficult characters who are real in the sense that people like them exist out there in the world.
Matt Abrahams: Our final question — what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Paula Moya: I’d say sense — like the story has to make sense — humor and then finally suspense. And that comes from like making them want to turn the page.
Matt Abrahams: I like this notion of it just has to make sense. Right. A lot of us take a simple criterion like that — we’ve definitely on this podcast talked about humor and the value of humor. You’ve illuminated today how suspense and familiarity can be really, really helpful. Paula, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing the story of your work and how to make our stories work better.
We’re taking away so many important insights that can really strengthen our narratives and help us motivate people in the direction that we want. I appreciate your time and your insights. Thank you.
Paula Moya: Well, thank you, Matt. I’m very happy to have had the chance to talk with you. [music plays]
Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, produced by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit GSB.Stanford.edu, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @StanfordGSB.
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