To those who understand life

If you were to say to the grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,” they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them: “I saw a house that cost 15,000 euros.” Then they would exclaim: “Oh, what a pretty house that is!”

Just so, you might say to them: “The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists.” And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders, and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: “The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612,” then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their questions.

They are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.

But certainly, for us who understand life, figures are a matter of indifference.

I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have like to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep…”

To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.

Above is an excerpt from one of my favorite novellas, “The Little Prince” by French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which implicitly gives a great definition and provides a strong rationale for storytelling.

petit_prince

Indeed, many people like facts and figures, but those numbers become more meaningful if you embed them into a context that appeals to their emotion. For many professional speakers this should be no surprise at all. Anyone familiar with Aristotle’s ancient art of rhetoric knows that a well-balanced mix of ethos, pathos and logos motivates and persuades your audience – and makes your presentation memorable.

In their book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” Chip and Dan Heath describe an experiment with students at Stanford University. All pupils had to prepare and deliver a one-minute persuasive speech. After everyone had finished their talk, the students were asked to rate each other on the effectiveness of the presentations and write down the key points they remembered.

  • On average, the presenters used 2.5 figures in their one-minute speeches
  • Only about 1 out of 10 used a personal story to make their point
  • 63% of the class remembered details from the speeches that used stories
  • But only 5% of the audience remembered the statistics

The little prince had it right. Figures are a matter of indifference and, to those who understand life (and IMHO to all the rest of us too), a good story can give a much greater air of truth.

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

A mystery from the great war

Last week, we welcomed 2014. This year, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I (also known as the “Great War”).

This reminds me of an old greeting card we once found on my late father’s attic, showing a photo of horse soldiers “in the downs of sand at Nieuport” taken during the “war of 1914-1916.” Uh… 1916?

great_war

I think most of us remember from history class that the WWI armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. And still this postcard was saying 1916… Was there a typo on it or what?

When we took a closer look at the flip side of the card, we noticed that it was actually posted (and hence printed before) mid 1917. At that time, nobody knew that the end of the war was still more than a year away.

So, the editor just made a too optimistic assumption about the end date of the war, and included a faulty placeholder for a figure that he didn’t know yet.

Although only a fait divers in the history of the Great War, I can draw a few lessons from this anecdote, that may help you craft your next business presentation. First of all, don’t guess for unknown data, facts or figures (they may turn out blatantly wrong). Also never tell a conclusion before you know how a story really ends. And, finally, rework your content regularly, keep information up-to-date and correct mistakes — yes, I did dug up another postcard, put in the mail a few months later, with the description “war of 1914-1917.”