Metaphors Over Facts – The Power of Narrative

I came across this article a few days ago and found the premise interesting, but not completely surprising – that we, as humans, are more drawn to and motivated by metaphors and facts. This is, after all, the power of advertising – getting us to want something without directly selling it.

The article referenced above does a good job of explaining our connection to metaphor, but I might add another reason why we like them: the power of the narrative.

As a way of introducing my concept, I’ll use last night’s Republican debate as an example. Well, not so much the debate itself – or even Republicans – but politics in general. Politicians use metaphor (and narrative) ad nauseam. Rather than explaining an issue or their opinion, they tell stories – generally personal ones. One of the candidates last night mentioned something about his father being a postal worker. Another told a story about a woman he had met in some context. Why do politicians over-rely on anecdotal evidence to get their point across? Probably because we want them to.

In short, we see the world through narrative. Most of the things we know, or think we know, we connect with via stories. Staying in the political realm for a minute longer, consider someone’s viewpoints on “welfare.” Try this out – ask someone to explain their position on welfare, then ask them visually what they see in their head while explaining the concept. Most likely, there will be someone specific doing something specific – it could be a fictional person or someone they’ve met, but generally the thoughts and feelings they hold about welfare will probably be understood in the context of a story or series of stories they’ve experienced, heard about, imagined, etc.

So, how to use this information? First, in the context of education & youth development, realize that it’s a great way to communicate – through metaphor and narrative. They serve as excellent advance organizers, templates, examples, etc. Consider the intervention of “social stories,” used frequently with kids who struggle with social interaction. Social stories help give kids a narrative to connect to that enables them to understand some concept, behavior, or expectation. We can explicitly teach social skills in addition to this, but giving them a narrative or metaphor helps give them a reference point and central organizing concept for how to organize those new skills.

And like many interventions, they (sh!) also tend to work on adults. Next time you’re in a professional development meeting, pay attention to when people are paying attention. If you go to church, pay attention to when people pay attention to the pastor or priest – generally, when stories are told, particularly ones that seem personally relevant.