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June 25, 2014
Don’t Lie, But Tell Stories

The most widely used book on persuasion and influence in the business community is — by far — Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Overall, the book is #276 in Amazon’s books. It’s #1 in consumer behavior, #13 in motivational books and #20 in success books. I recommend it highly for every person’s bookshelf.


But the author is utterly blind to what makes his book a phenomenal success, never mentioning the key factor, yet maximizing it throughout the book. It’s clear that the driver of his book’s influence is hidden in plain sight. It’s a glorious and very lucky form of blindness.

Cialdini’s book is a set of six principles, “weapons of influence.” But the book is loaded with...STORIES. The most basic weapon of influence is not one of his six principles, but story. I don’t expect psychologists to know or understand that. After all, psychology is the scientific study of mental functions, behaviors and...white rats. Language use and function belong to the discipline of rhetoric — that human symbolic effort to bring about cooperation. As a result, rhetoricians often focus upon how various forms of language work, offering information that psychology lacks. Rhetoricians might focus upon question or analogy — or, in this instance, story. Intriguingly, rhetoricians understand psychological theory and some understand the practice of cognitive psychology as well as the neuro-sciences. But with the exception of Michigan’s Karl Weick and Sigmund Freud, psychologists do not understand rhetoric. Freud built his theory of the mind on literature and rhetoric. But Cialdini is typical of psychologists in his blindness.

Understanding story


At their heart, stories are fundamentally verbal theater. Like theater, they range from B-movies to classics. Stories pull the listener into the storyteller’s perspective. The power of story, like that of theater, is the experience it puts the listener through: what we call its rhetorical force. While less impactful and interesting, stories are also simply used to explain concepts.

Restructuring reality


Although I use stories to clarify and support my reasoning, I’m much more committed to stories with the rhetorical force to challenge deeply held perspectives that might be dated, obsolete, or limited. In contrast to stories that clarify reasoning, these are stories, dramas, that a person can feel and take part in. Differing from stories that merely clarify reasoning, these stories can subvert, enhance, enlarge, and introduce ambiguity into belief structures, causing personal change, including even that of one’s own disposition. As theater, they require much from the hearer. Of course, the more effective the story and the more work the hearer does, the more he or she will get out of the story. On many occasions, clients ask about such narratives, wanting even more understanding — and sometimes wondering about their validity. Inevitably, I adapt experiences that I can support with relevant data. These stories are exceedingly valuable because we know that motivation generated from within — the intrinsic — is far more powerful than the extrinsic.

Although the literary novel inevitably impacts people, it is more subtle and slow-moving than many of Jesus’ parables — once they’re set in context. Although the religious today see Jesus as a loving, nice guy, many of his auditors in that world did not. The parables, for example, sometimes reveal him as an irritating, revolutionary bastard. Once it’s set in its original context, one of the most indicative challenges, an Oscar winner, is the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Those who know the story today tend to think of it as a simple story about two good guys ignoring a person in trouble, and a bad guy — a stranger — helping out. In sharp contrast, the original story Jesus tells is profoundly shocking, profoundly implausible, irritating, and...rhetorically violent. That becomes only obvious in my reconstruction.

But first, a contemporary context. You and your wife are in your late 60s, living in a medium-sized city in the Deep South. You are Republicans, members of the Tea Party and committed evangelicals who fear and despise Muslims. Recently you learn that so many Muslims have moved into your community that they have petitioned the city fathers to permit them to buy a piece of property for a mosque, just a few blocks away from your home. You and your wife have joined with neighbors in your own petition and protest. Your daughter, a headstrong 30-year-old, is an Associated Press reporter — and you’ve begged her to stay away from the Middle East and Muslims.

Ignoring her parents, their daughter goes into a rebel-controlled, but supposedly safe, area of Syria, with two male friends and afterwards relates the following story:

While in Syria Assad’s troops surprise the rebels and engage in a firefight. I take off running, losing my friends. Just as I turn a corner to supposed safety, a bullet ricochets into my thigh and I drop to the edge of the pavement, bleeding and struggling to get away. Paying no attention to me, a UN four-wheeler drives by. Then a Reuters News car also ignores me. But a Jeep with a rebel whizzes by, brakes suddenly and a young man hops out, his tell-tale dress suggesting that he is Arab Al Qaeda. He would recognize my dress as Western, but seeing the blood, he runs to me, scaring me to death. But he searches for a tourniquet and seeing nothing else, jerks off my hijab, tying it around my thigh to stanch the bleeding. Then he picks me up, puts me in the back seat of the jeep, takes me to a hospital aid station and drops me off. I learned that just before leaving, he handed $30 American to a worker, telling him to take care of my wound, then get a taxi for me and get me out of Syria — quickly. Then he hops back into his jeep, and speeds off. I’m OK, but I’m also glad the Al Qaeda member helped me.


Since our knowledge of the world is more or less equivalent to the set of experiences we’ve had and the stories we know, our reality is limited by them. And our mindset and behavior are merely responses to those experiences and stories. Indeed, if you’re an effective listener, you’ll realize that the stories a person knows actually highlight both the state and the intelligence of that person. So a person’s behavioral patterns are actually reflections of the stories he or she knows. And now that AP reporter’s parents have a new story. 

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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