Two reasons why I make my points with stories

“You don't put new wine in old wineskins.”

A story doesn't have to be long. It doesn't have to be complex. And it may only hint at the beginning, middle and end.

Much like you hear R&B singers say they started in church, I'm pretty sure the first stories I heard were there. And the first stories I told were in church too.

That's a great way to learn to tell stories, because if you suck, they “have to forgive you or they go to hell” (a reference to a recent Sheldon Cooper line in Big Bang Theory).

But this isn't a religious or church post. It's simply a reference to one of the first stories that really captured my attention.

“You don't put new wine in old wineskins,” doesn't feel like a story. Until you understand some background, like new wine expands. Like the leather of old wineskins will have already expanded. Like the mess that's created when the new wine expands in old skins that are at full stretch capacity already.

But once you know all that, those 8 words can be used in a variety of contexts.

For example, I just read an article that explained MVC patterns in software development, and introduced a new pattern. As it described the new paradigm, it used some of the older MVC terms and I thought, they're about to put new wine in old wineskins.

Two reasons why I make my points with stories

The first reason I use stories is because abstractions help understanding. Have you ever heard someone explain how to play Monopoly before? Have you witnessed when someone explains the tactics before explaining the goal?

“So you roll a pair of dice and land on a spot. If you buy the spot others will owe you rent when they land on it. But when you land on someone else's, you pay rent. And every time you cross Go you collect money.”

It's crazy. And you know what's crazier? The person listening will end up asking low-level questions,”So why are different spots colored differently?” And still, no one knows the objective or how to win!

The same is true when you start explaining something. People get stuck in the details without seeing the big picture.

Imagine I want to explain network traffic and packets. If I start using technical terms I'll potentially lose my audience, but also will generate questions at a low level before I get to the main point.

[Tweet “The same is true when you start explaining something. People get stuck in the details without seeing the big picture.”]

So I start with a story (or illustration).

Imagine I've written a book with 10 chapters. You want to read my book so you ask me for a copy of my book. To make sure it doesn't get lost in the mail, I send each chapter separately. And when you get it, even out of order, you can see which ones arrived and which didn't, and make a request for the missing chapters. I can re-send those. Until you get them all and can order them.

My story may be silly but it helps keep people out of the details, focused on the parts that matter most (the ones I want them to focus on).

And this brings us to my second reason for stories.

The second reason I use stories is because they're visual and that helps retention.

If I tell you about packets over a network, maybe you're visualizing something. But there's a good chance you're not.

They're a good chance you've starting visualizing something completely different – like your backyard pool and the desire to leave our conversation.

[Tweet “Stories help you retain what I'm trying to explain.”]

But when I tell you a story – even a silly one about mailing you book chapters – I'm tapping into the visual part of your brain because I'm using elements that you actually can visualize.

  • And that visualization keeps you engaged.
  • That visualization helps you “see” what I'm talking about.
  • That visualization creates a mental model that you can hold on to.

So what you know is this: Stories help you retain what I'm trying to explain.