The British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, liked to play cards. But he also enjoyed eating a snack at the same time, and that tied up his hands and involved utensils. So, in 1748, he came up with a solution: he put beef between slices of toast, so he could eat with one hand and still play the game.
That’s how the “sandwich” became one of the most popular meal inventions in the western world. And if you’re reading this story for the first time, it’s unlikely you’ll forget it. It’s the power of stories.
The sandwich legend illustrates a simple truth about writing – the best way to engage an audience is to find the story in your message and make it as compelling as possible. I believe it’s what gives any piece of writing an emotional hook, enabling your ideas to percolate in your audience’s brain.
Confirming this approach, neuroscientists have shown us that our brains are more active when we listen to stories. But why does the unfolding format of a story have such a profound impact on our learning?
The simple answer: We’re wired that way. A story, in its basic form, is a connection of cause and effect, which is how we think. So we engage in narratives all day long, whether we’re buying groceries, working on a project, or daydreaming about the people we love. In fact, personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.
But there’s more. Neuroscience, brain imaging, and cognitive and behavioral studies also tell us that the ability to learn new information can only be connected to things we already know. In other words, we find meaning when we associate new information with what we already understand.
When we hear a story we activate a part of the brain that helps us relate the story to a familiar experience and feeling, whether it’s pain, joy, triumph or disgust. Even simple sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball” trigger activity in the motor cortex of our brains – the part that coordinates body movement. Mentally, we “experience” what we read or hear.
So, by demonstrating, rather than telling an audience what to think, they can learn about and embrace a new idea or product on their terms. No one wants to be lectured to. For a corporate writer, like me, this approach works whether I’m spilling my guts in a blog, writing a white paper, creating an ad or app, or guiding a riveted audience in a speech or PowerPoint presentation.
One more thing: The simple story is more successful than the complicated one – even though we think complex and detailed stories are more interesting. Again, science tells us the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick.
It also follows that simple language is the best way to activate regions of the brain that make us truly relate to the arc of a story. So I try to reduce the number of adjectives or complicated nouns in my writing – avoid jargon and clichés – and exchange them for more simple, yet heartfelt language.
If you don’t believe it works, try not to think about the 4th Earl of Sandwich the next time you bite into that chicken salad wrap at your desk.