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Climate Hustle

If you want them to remember, tell a story

Posted on 23 May 2012 by Tom Smerling

After watching this TEDx clip, you may never want to stand before an audience again without pausing, at least once, to utter these seven magic words:   

“Let me tell you a little story.”

But most advice about the importance of narrative comes from psychologists and communication consultants, not storytellers.   So here is a master storyteller, Bill Harley, talking about his life’s work, and sharing what he’s learned about why storytelling is so central to human understanding.  

A small sample:  

It has a power nothing else has. . .

I’m not talking just about literature and English.   I’m talking about history and astrophysics and biochemistry and law and mathematics.  

All of those things are best explained through story. Because "story" is how we are reminded, and how we remember.   If we want it to be memorable, it must be a story. . . 

We are not built to memorize lists, or unrelated facts. We are built to remember narrative.

So try this the next time you are giving a lecture or a talk or standing in front of a bunch of people:    Stop in the middle of your offering of facts or your closely-reasoned argument, and say "Let me tell you a little story."

And watch what happens. You see the faces relax, you see people reseat themselves in their chairs, and get ready. . . to hear . . . a story.

Harley's points apply not only to public speeches, but to all climate communication, from written articles to interviews, blogs, and even dinner-table conversation. 

So sit back, relax, and enjoy Bill Harley's anecdotes.   


If you want to look further into the art of climate storytelling, below are some suggestions for where to start:

  • There are two ways of thinking about climate storytelling

1) the overall narrative (aka storyline) you select to describe the problem and its solutions to a given audience.  There are many different approaches; ClimateBites has compiled 23 alternative ways to tell the climate story.

2) short, personal anecdotes used to draw the audience in and make your message stick.   For tips on becoming a better storyteller for any public cause, check out Andy Goodman's work linked at "Numbers Numb, Jargon Jars.  And Nobody Ever Marched on Washington Because of a Pie Chart.

  • As role model for climate storytelling, nobody beats Dr. Richard Alley, host of PBS's Earth: the Operators' Manual.   That entire series is filled with great stories, and the book includes even more.   In this short clip Alley draws on his own life events to illustrate how 'skeptics' cherry-pick data, ala "The Escalator."

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. My avocation (folk singer/guitarist) has *always* informed my vocations (race car mechanic, now geologist) in ways that I could not instruct anyone on how, but intuitively knew it was the correct way to 'get across' to an 'audience,' whether they be there to hear tales in song, or to hear tales in geological terms.

    In terms of speaking with people wrt climate change, I *always* attempt to 'story-fy' it, to put it (the science) in relatable terms for those who aren't scientists. It doesn't always work but I've found it works more often than not!
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  2. Folks might be interested in looking up Randy Olson ("Storyomics: proof that scientists evolved from humans" and "Don't be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style").
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  3. beautiful article. I just gave some 90 minute talks about climate change facts ... for a general public of our region here in Germany (Hannover) ... I had to struggle for stories around the very harsh and dry topice. Grace to God my wife - an excellent teacher - helped me a lot (though not being a scientist) and she attended the talks just for giving me feedback afterwards ... a super experiment.

    Thanks Tom - we need more of that kind ...
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  4. Vroomie #1: From race car mechanic to geologist?? I'll bet THAT'S a good story in itself!
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  5. Vroomie @ 1: From cars to karst - was it a bumpy ride?

    You may have hit on why Monckton is so popular. He in effect tells a story along the lines of a fairytale that climate change is no problem. And like Bill Harly, he puts on a show while telling it.
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  6. Exactly the technique used by Australia's own Climate Commissioner. He's brilliant at it.
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  7. How could I fail to mention the parables of Jesus?
    "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world." (Matt. 13:35)
    Not all parables were stories, but most were.
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  8. "From race car mechanic to geologist?? I'll bet THAT'S a good story in itself!"

    jimpsey and funglestrumpet, if only you knew! To not crud up the comments section too badly, email me and I'll be happy to tell you how I went from "cars to karst" (I'm STEALING that) and how it was all by accident.

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