That Reminds Me of a Story...

Answering a question with a story may be a 21st century superpower.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Mike Erskine/Unsplash
Source: Mike Erskine/Unsplash

Years ago, after my father died and the family was sorting through his things, I found in his office a small filing cabinet. It was jammed full of index cards. On each index card was a story—or at least an anecdote or an extended joke. He must have been collecting them for decades. Some were good, some corny, some curiously rarefied. They were roughly indexed by when they might be useful. Dad, apparently, was developing an arsenal of stories for all occasions. He wanted to be able to answer a question, any question, with a story.

This strikes me now as parenting genius. It’s a surefire way to dispense wisdom lightly. You can impart a lesson without being preachy. You can be directive without triggering pushback. Because, hey, you’re just telling a story.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember my father being particularly good at it. Dialling up the right story for the occasion, I mean. He was a surpassingly great guy, but not a spellbinding raconteur. I think it was something he aspired to get good at after he retired and had more time to commit to the effort. Turned out he didn’t live long enough to see the plan through.

So let me push his project just a bit farther down the road. I believe my (psychologist) father was on to something: the best answer to any question is a story. We’ll dig into the reasons in a minute. But first it’s worth looking at some folks who are running the masters class.

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The writer Chuck Palahniuk once reached out to the novelist Ira Levin to ask a technical question about craft. “What are your methods?”

Levin wrote back.

"There once was a man who had a very long beard," he said. “One day someone asked this man if he slept with his beard on top of the blankets or beneath, and he couldn’t say. He’d never given it any thought. That night he tried sleeping with his beard under the covers but couldn’t. Then he tried with his beard above the blankets, but couldn’t. And after that the man never fell asleep again.”

Palahniuk got the point. Don’t overthink your creative process. (And maybe don’t ask other people to overthink theirs.)

More recently, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the theologian and philosopher, was asked what he thought of the current climate of “cancel culture.” (That is, the notion that people with dangerous opinions are not only prevented from airing them, they’re personally annihilated on the internet.)

“Lots of kids in Britain have peanut allergies," the rabbi replied. "American kids too, I think. But there’s one country in the world where kids don’t have peanut allergies: Israel. That’s because the most popular snack contains peanuts. People are exposed to it from very early on, so they develop immunity. Now, at university,” he continued, “we’re exposed to views that challenge our own, and we develop tolerance. That’s what makes people strong and healthy and safe. Lose that and not only are you destroying the most important element of civilization—the collaborate pursuit of truth—but you’re also potentially ruining those young people.”

Answering a question with a story is firmly planted in Jewish oral tradition. It’s also an important part of many other religions. But I think you can credit TED Talks (and perhaps 12-step groups, too) for bringing “sermonic” storytelling—stories with a personal message, as answers of a kind—into the secular world.

“What would happen if people could only talk to each other in stories?” a Belgian photographer named Hannes Couvreur wondered not long ago. The question was inspired by the work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson. He believed stories—not data, not images, not memes, but stories—are the best tool for conveying the nuances of contemporary life. With that in mind, Couvreur created an art project called That Reminds Me Of A Story, which has now spread across Europe and the internet. Anyone can attend and participate, with one ground rule: You can only say something if you begin with: "That reminds me of a story..." 

Couvreur routinely hears from people who were changed by attending one of these events. Where else do you get to tell your story till it’s done? No one can interrupt you. You don’t have to explain it or defend yourself. It isn’t a political message, just something you heard that moved you enough to share it again. The evening turns into a kind of mutual exploration of ideas: ‘Yes, and...’; ‘yes, and...’; ‘yes, and....’ In the end, a human chord is struck. It’s almost an antidote to the toxic polarized brawling that defines so much public discourse. “It’s never about finding the truth, ” says Hannes. “Stories aren’t right or wrong. They’re just … stories.” And the more of them we have the better. “The future depends on the biodiversity of our stories.”

Carefully chosen stories also have a unique therapeutic value. They’re conversational crowbars. They don’t close a line of inquiry down, the way answers do; they open it up.

The psychiatrist Milton Erickson thought cherry-picking great anecdotes is an essential skill of all good counsellors. People already know the solutions to their problems, he believed. It takes the perfect provocation, an intellectual nudge in the form of an exquisitely chosen story—what he called “teaching tales”—to coax those solutions out of their subconscious.

The more vividly you tell a story, the more your listener's brain lights up. The brains of the teller and the listener actually fall into sync. A good story plunges the listener into the web you’re weaving. For a teacher, snapping into rabbi mode when asked a question is sound pedagogy. People remember information better when it’s wrapped in a story, rather than an abstract explanation. We’ve known that for decades.

But in 2020, there’s a delicate balance. These days, if you ask a stranger for the time, you definitely don’t want to be told how to build a watch. People are busy. They’re addled. They have the attention span of goldfish.

I still think you can answer a question with a story—and you should! But you have to keep it tight.

After the financial meltdown of 2008, the business press scrummed around anyone who might be able to offer insight. One reporter approached the investment gurus Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. This was at the annual shareholder’s meeting of their company, Berkshire Hathaway—which had escaped much of the carnage.

“So many people suffered terrible losses, Mr. Buffett, but you two gentlemen not so much. Would you care to comment?”

Buffett thought for a moment and then replied:

“Well, you never know who’s swimming naked till the tide goes out.”

OK, that’s not really a story, just a punchline.

But I bet you don’t forget it.

Next: How to remember stories.