This study has found the key to effective communication

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Turning thoughts into words is often more difficult than it sounds. Have you ever had an idea all worked out clearly in your head only for it to crumble into a confusing mess once you started explaining it to someone else? Both verbal and nonverbal communication is difficult, and communicating effectively is even harder. Now, a new study conducted by the University at Buffalo has found perhaps the best way to initiate an important conversation or make a big presentation. Tell a story.

The best way to foster effective communication

Simply put, people respond much more positively to a new piece of information when it is told in the form of a narrative. The research team at UB focused their efforts on how scientists can better convey important scientific findings, such as climate change statistics or public health advice concerning the new novel coronavirus.

However, it’s easy to see how these results can be infinitely helpful within a business setting as well. How many times have we all been gathered for an important company meeting, only to be bombarded with cold statistics (EBITDA, quarterly customer retention, etc). All of those numbers, while no doubt accurate, hardly do much to motivate the average worker. Instead, if the speaker in charge of such a meeting were to craft the tone of the discussion into a more relatable narrative arc that included the company’s beginnings, current state, and projected future, that could make all the difference in terms of listener engagement.

It doesn’t have to be a public speaking event either. The next time you have something pressing to discuss with a co-worker or manager, this approach could be very useful. For example, let’s say you’re planning on speaking with your manager about an unhappy customer or client; don’t immediately start talking about the person’s complaints, instead construct a narrative arc that explains the entire situation. Even if you or your company happen to be in the wrong, your boss is still more likely to view you, the speaker, more favorably with this approach.

“Narrative affects an audience’s perception of the person who is delivering the message,” says Melanie Green, a professor of communication in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, in a press release.

Green’s work is particularly fascinating because most research on the effects on person-perception on news or information delivery has concluded that if we don’t like the messenger, we’re usually more inclined to reject that information, even if it’s good news. Conversely, this study finds that even an unlikable speaker can effectively communicate their message if it’s told as a story.

Humorously, the study’s authors say that in light of their work, it may actually be accurate to “blame the messenger” if they do a particularly poor job of constructing a compelling narrative. 

Breaking down the findings of the study

“Our findings suggest that telling stories when communicating can make the speaker appear more warm and trustworthy, as opposed to speaking some other way, such as providing only statistics and figures,” Green notes. “We wanted to explore why people are sometimes distrusting of what amounts to the best possible evidence we have on many issues.”

Breaking down these findings further, researchers concluded that people typically focus on two qualities when formulating an opinion on someone: warmth (friendly, trustworthy) and competence (skilled, intelligent). 

Again, the study’s authors were thinking about how scientists can better convey their findings for this study, and they noted that scientists are often seen as very competent, but not exactly friendly or warm. Does that description sound familiar? The same could very well be said about the quintessential company CEO or office manager. At least most of the time, the people in these positions are there for a reason; they’re smart and know what they’re doing, but at the same time, most aren’t usually considered the warmest or most well-liked in the office.

“That perception might be a communication barrier that’s responsible for people believing that regardless of someone’s ability, they still might not have the best interests of others in mind,” Green says. “We worked from the idea of science communication, but the results can be applied whenever there’s someone perceived as high in competence, but cold and distant.”

Despite the best of managerial intentions, it can be very difficult for an entry-level worker to truly believe their superiors actually care about them.

“Telling a story might be a way to improve that perception of warmth because stories create empathy, and we begin to appreciate what characters in the narrative are going through.” She adds.

So, how were these conclusions formulated? In all, three experiments were conducted involving over 250 people. The first two scenarios involved participants giving advice on either a new bank or vacation destination. Some participants were told to tell a story to convey their point, while the others were instructed to only use statistics. The third experiment was constructed similarly, with participants using either statistics or storytelling to convince someone else to choose them as a partner on a project.

In all three studies, participants overwhelmingly responded more positively to storytelling over statistics.

Taking the time to construct a narrative for your next presentation or team announcement probably sounds unnecessary at first. But, it could seriously help your message sink in the next time you have something important to say. Besides, it’s not like you have to write the next Hamlet, some semblance of a narrative arc is all it takes to make yourself more likable as a speaker and make that new piece of information much more digestible.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.