When I finished reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, the only thing I thought was missing was more detailed instructions about how to tell a story, especially since a story often encompasses all of the other elements of a sticky message. What I really wanted was a step-by-step guide to tell a story that people will remember — a magic bullet that would give me the tools I needed to consistently deliver effective and convincing messages. When I received an offer to review The Elements of Persuasion by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman (blog), a quick bit of research uncovered that this might be the piece of the puzzle I so desperately wanted. Unfortunately, the Holy Grail of books about storytelling is going to have to wait, but The Elements of Persuasion, as part inspiration and part practical advice for telling stories, will remain top-of-mind useful instruction for years to come.
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There is a lot to like about this book. The most salient points are made when the authors tell the stories that make the points arguing for the acronym on which the entire book is premised.
Stories are best when the narration is inculcated with passion. Ultimately the idea is to imbue the person hearing the story with emotion. This is unlikely if the story is told devoid of passion.
A hero grounds the story and gives us someone to relate to. The authors use both corporate spokespeople like Michael Jordan and politicians like Ronald Reagan to make their point about the role of heroes in crafting effective and convincing stories.
No one can be a hero unless he has something to defeat. This can be another human, or it can be a disease, an animal, an accident of geography, or simply wrongheaded thinking. Defining the antagonist wrong can kill your cause.
This is when the hero realizes what he must do to overcome the antagonist. This is the epiphany he has before he takes action. In super-sappy films, this is when the lead character he realizes he has been in pursuit of the wrong woman’s heart, or when the hero finally puts together all the clues that will lead him to the killer.
The authors describe this point as the one needing the least explanation. It is simply when the hero achieves what he wanted. If we look beyond this for a moment, we will see that it can also be about the hero achieving what he needed. The moment of awareness the hero had, for instance, might have changed the object of pursuit. However, we implicitly understand what we all ultimately need self-actualization (according to Maslow), even if we don’t understand what will get us there.
I have only two gripes about the book.
The first is the authors’ use of the “5 elements” as a metaphor to make their point. This may have a profound effect on someone else, but it was entirely lost on me, and a bit distracting. I understand the double entendre with the word “elements,” but making this connection with Fire, earth, air, water, and ether makes it seem like they’re just trying too hard.
The second deals with a major theme in their book (I call it “major” because it came up several times, not because the authors spend a lot of energy making an argument for this premise). The authors claim that stories are “facts wrapped in emotions.” However, anyone who has ever read about a persistent urban myth knows this to be false. Stories need not have anything to do with facts, but they can instead be used to manipulate emotions to serve both good and nefarious purposes. To the authors, the blame lies with the emotions that wrap the facts, but history shows us that many times they are built with the lies in order to manipulate emotions.
When taken in the context of the entire, book, though, these issues are fairly minor. On the first point, they don’t spend much time arguing for their metaphor, and on the second, as long as you realize the self-evident point that powerful stories can serve both great truths and great lies, you don’t need to dwell on this for two long before focusing on the meat of the book, from which some wonderful insight can be drawn.
Buy this book
Although I did receive a free review copy, in order to maintain my objectivity in providing a recommendation, I bought a copy of the book and gave it to John Keehler (blog). I did so in order to convince you of this point:
If I say a book is worth buying, I really mean it.
If you are interested in learning how to tell persuasive stories, this book can help. It is peppered with wonderful examples that are truly inspirational, and when you put them up against the principles taught in this book, you will come away with a greater understanding about why they work, and how to implement them in your own work. – Cam Beck