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The Agony and Ecstasy of Storytelling - Maria Stone

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One of the most effective ways to communicate something is to tell a story. Turns out we are biologically programmed to comprehend and remember better in a story format. That's the positive side of story telling. However, we are also prone to see a story (i.e., a causal chain) where there is none. Once we "buy into" the story, we tend to accept it and suffer from "confirmation bias" -- we become blind to alternative explanations and may find ourselves living in a fantasy land very quickly, if the story we believe turns out not to correlate to reality very much. That's the negative side of story telling. That allows snake oil salesmen to be successful. In my talk, I will reflect on these two sides of story telling and ponder how to tell if story telling is used for good or for evil in our lives.

This talk was presented at Convox 2015.

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The Agony and Ecstasy of Storytelling - Maria Stone

  1. 1. The agony and the ecstasy of storytelling Maria Stone Convox 2015 causality.html telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains
  2. 2. Abstract Full disclosure: good story telling is a skill I don’t have. I’ve always been a bit suspicious about those who can spin a good tale. Yet, story telling is what keeps our attention best, and what makes presentations meaningful and memorable. Neuroscience now points to the probably obvious fact that we are built to process stories, and this is the preferred mode of processing information for humans… So why not spin a tale? The very capacity that makes humans process stories well makes us incredibly biased—we see causality where there is none, and we don’t seek evidence to the contrary of what we believe. In short, we are super-impressionable and not very critical—especially when it comes to good stories. But there is more to this than that… Human race has exploited its ability to see connections, and great innovations come from this ability.. Can we change reality by simply telling a story?
  3. 3. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with storytelling… …and here is why… – Once upon the time, I was a social/cognitive scientist Who was taught how impressionable and easily biased we are by compelling stories – Yet, I discovered that storytelling is one of the most effective ways to engage your audience Because humans are hard-wired to respond to stories – So now I want to tell you the story… About the dangers and the joys of using story telling …and so far this story has no end, happy or otherwise…
  4. 4. Who uses stories? • Well obviously, the creative types – Writers, journalists, movie makers • But also – Bankers? – Entrepreneurs? – Scientists? – Cavemen?
  5. 5. Here is our banker…
  6. 6. …and here is the whole website dedicated to teaching storytelling to entrepreneurs…
  7. 7. …even scientists think of storytelling…
  8. 8. First, what is a story? • A story is something that has a spine – It has the beginning – Builds to a climax – And then has a resolution – It ties things together, in “one thing led to another” kind of way --sort of implies “causality”? “A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.”
  9. 9. Other than that, all stories are different… Some rely on vivid details and metaphors, others do not Some are long, some are very short Some are very visual, others are not… Some are true, and some are made up…
  10. 10. Yet they all have one thing in common • They engage and impact the audience – They are very memorable – They feel as though we lived through them – They have the power to shape the re-usable narrative that we pass on to people • We feel like we perceived cause in effect directly… – And neuroscience supports this feeling • Our brains have more areas active during storytelling • Our brains look just like speakers’ brains during storytelling
  11. 11. …but here is the bad We are hard-wired to engage with stories We see causality where there isn’t evidence for it [as michotte demo shows] Our minds are designed to make up stories and to see logical chains where there may not be ones We are guilty of “confirmation bias”—once we see it one way, we are hesitant to challenge that way of seeing “it”
  12. 12. One particularly illustrative example… Nassim Taleb noted how ridiculous this is in his book The Black Swan. In the hours after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13th, 2003, Bloomberg News blared the headline, "U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM." Thirty minutes later, bond prices retreated and Bloomberg altered their headline: "U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS." A more correct headline might have been: "U.S. TREASURIES FLUCTUATE AS THEY ALWAYS DO; HUSSEIN CAPTURE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM WHATSOEVER," but that isn't what editors want to post, nor what people want to read.
  13. 13. So I struggle with this daily… On the one hand, I want to convince and entertain, compel to action… “Telling to win” On the other hand, I am worried about introducing bias and becoming blind to seeing alternatives • …and just to complicate things… some fantastic examples of product development are about making fiction come to life… – Because we can exploit human weakness for stories to sell them a product vision
  14. 14. Some even go really far with this whole storytelling thing… We are entering the era of conceptual age or some shit like that… and only those of us wired for empathy, creativity and storytelling will continue to be employed… Forget the left side of your brain with its detail orientation, logical thinking, and alike… To me, this sounds (potentially) as a road to extinction.. Who/what will keep us in check as we revolve in fantasy of our own or buy into someone else’s fantasies?
  15. 15. and… Good story frequently doesn’t take off, as many useless paid TV programs show… There is more to creating a product that will take off than being a snake oil salesman.. What is it? – Is it putting storytelling at the heart of building a product, as many suggest? “Just as you can’t put lipstick on a pig, a startup can’t mask a bad product with good storytelling.”
  16. 16. I don’t have a good conclusion here… So use storytelling to inspire and engage.. Beware of its seductive nature… …and I will wonder for now if my stories harm or help every time I tell a story…