What does pitching a business have in common with telling a joke?

The underlying story.

Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener – an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature – a face, a figure, a flower – and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.

Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?

Although storytelling is one of the most effective modes of communication, it’s also quite inefficient. Often, to tell a compelling story people will misconstrue the details.

I’ve found that people are more likely to bend the truth based on their backgrounds. Salesmen are known to talk people into making decisions. On the other hand, engineers struggle to “fake it till they make it.”

There’s a reason for this, a salesperson is looking to evoke emotion in the person they’re selling to. In fact, mirroring is a skill taught in sales training to appear more likable or relatable to the other person.

One of the best salesman I know, can talk about almost any topic one can think of at length. This gives him the ability to make friends with almost anyone in a short amount of time.

Engineers are trained to think bottom up when designing a system or making a product. They’re required to think through every possible edge case to make sure the product is safe. For example, if an engineer is building a bridge, they need to be sure that all of the calculations have been triple checked before writing an approval.

Whether it’s a salesperson or an engineer, when listening to a story make sure to take into account the bias of the person telling it.

The narrative fallacy

Another key component to be weary of when listening to stories is the narrative fallacy.

The narrative fallacy leads us to see events as stories, with logical chains of cause and effect. Stories help us make sense of the world. However, if we’re not aware of the narrative fallacy it can lead us to believe we understand the world more than we really do.

Farnam Street, Avoiding Falling Victim to The Narrative Fallacy

A narrative I bought into when I was younger is that anyone can get into an ivy league school if they work hard in high-school.

I didn’t realize until recently how untrue that is.

Working hard in high-school is subjective. It depends on whether your family had the resources to support third party test-prep, extra circulars, and the neighborhood you live in. These factors play a larger role in a student’s ability to make it to an ivy league college than most people would like to believe.

That’s the thing about stories, most of them are a veneer that we break through once we experience it for ourselves.

The same is true for college students who take internships at big companies. What they often miss is that internship programs are designed to recruit the college student at the end of it. Often, the internship experience won’t actually corellate to the full-time job.

That’s the problem with narrative: it lures us into believing that we can explain the past through cause-and-effect when we hear a story that supports our prior beliefs.

Farnam Street, Avoiding Falling Victim to The Narrative Fallacy

As much as I innately love listening to and telling stories I believe we could all benefit by being a bit more skeptical when listening to one.

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