"When you advocate for psychology at the statehouse, on Capitol Hill or anywhere else, do you bombard policymakers with numbers?
Don't, Andy Goodman, director of the Goodman Center in Los Angeles, told participants at the State Leadership Conference in March.
"Narrative is the most powerful form of communication," said Goodman, a former TV writer who now helps nonprofits, government agencies and other clients transform their communications from bullet points, acronyms and jargon to persuasive stories.
For one thing, storytelling helps people remember, said Goodman, citing a study that asked 5-year-olds to remember paired images an hour after seeing them. When the children simply saw the images, they could only match one of 21 pairs an hour later. When they put each pair into a sentence when they saw them, the children could later match eight pairs. But if they put each pair into a question, they could later identify 16.
"Stories also influence what we believe and pay attention to and what we ignore," said Goodman. In another study, a psychologist asked students to read a magazine profile of a stereotypical "welfare queen," then presented them with data showing that most women on welfare were actually desperate to get off and stayed on for just two years. When surveyed afterward, the students remembered the story, not the facts. "A story gets inside our brains and acts like software, deciding what facts to let in and what facts to keep out," said Goodman.
Telling the kind of story that gets inside people's heads requires several elements, most notably an obstacle that stands between a protagonist and his or her goal. "Until ‘I want' bumps into ‘You can't,' you don't have a story," said Goodman. Other elements include an opening act that outlines the context and a third act that includes a clear ending and explanation of what it all meant.
Psychologists can use these strategies, just as they help clients change their personal narratives, said Goodman. Instead of giving policymakers a list of bullet points about why it's wrong to require physician supervision of psychologists and statistics about how it delays treatment, said Goodman, tell a story. Maybe a patient with a traumatic brain injury tried to see a neuropsychologist and was told he needed a physician referral. The physician's next appointment was in three months, and by then the patient was suicidal.
"If you have facts you want people to remember, it's much more likely that they'll remember them if they're contained in a story," he said."