Stories

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on advice, where I explored the reasons why advice is inefficient, and why you should listen to as much advice as possible, then ignore it. In summary, I advocated for the fact that advice is based on the experience of others, and so it is very difficult for people to relate to the advice. If a parents tells their child to read a few pages of a book every day, the child will likely derive little benefit from that advice because they do not have the benefit of hindsight that the parents have. The parents may give their child that advice because they understand the importance of reading as they have matured, but the child does not have that experience, and so will find it very difficult to see the value in following the advice their parents gave. In this post, I failed to offer an alternative to advice. Upon further contemplation, I have a good alternative: tell stories.

I believe in telling stories. Stories are more constructive than advice because they give the listener additional context into the topic. When someone shares advice, it is often only a few sentences long, and the listener will only have a limited understanding of the nature of the advice. Indeed, the listener will not know how much of an impact that advice had on someone else’s life, so it will be very difficult for them to evaluate whether the advice is useful and applicable to their own life. If the parent were to tell the child the story of their career, and explain how reading helped them achieve their goals, the child is more likely to find value in the advice because they can see the benefits of following the advice. The child may still not read a few pages of a book every day, but telling them a story about the parents’ experience will give them more to think about regarding the advice, and may encourage them to follow the advice in the future.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of stories over advice is that stories are engaging and thought provoking. If you can tell a story well, then people will likely be fully engaged in the story, and want to know as much as possible about the story. Indeed, often times people ask questions at the end of stories so that they can gain further context into the experience or tale. Because the listeners will be fully engaged, they are more likely to remember elements of the story and the advice that it conveys. Rather than giving someone advice — which would be a sentence or two — you can instead tell someone a story and give them the context they need to better understand the advice they have received. The best stories are relatable, and people are more likely to listen to the advice the story includes because they are more invested in the story.

Stories also allow people to choose what advice is best. Indeed, there is often a “moral” to a story, but because stories are dynamic — they are not single sentences or conversations about advice — then people can select what advice they think is true, and then follow that advice. Therefore, even if someone does not agree with the main advice conveyed in the story, there is still an opportunity for them to learn something new, or receive some other advice which will help them improve their life. The listener is not told what to follow — they can follow whatever advice they found in the story. Advice, however, requires the reader to follow a specific way of thinking, which may not be applicable to their life. Further, because stories are dynamic, they can be interpreted by the listener in any way they want — listeners can think through the story critically, and reflect on the parts of the story they find most interesting. This is unlike advice where there is little context for the listener, which makes it more difficult for them to reflect on the lessons they have been told.

Stories bring people together. Most people enjoy listening to stories, and so when one story is being told to someone, it is likely that other people will join as well. People can also connect over their shared interest in a story — someone’s experience in exams; someone’s experience starting a failed company. Those who have all heard the same story can strengthen their relationship by discussing the lessons they learned, and what they thought were the best parts of the story. Also, the person telling the story will be able to develop a closer relationship with the listeners because they are sharing their personal thoughts and experiences or something they care a lot about.

To use a personal example, earlier this week I received an email from someone about a shareholder question I had recently posted. The person who sent the email, rather than giving me a list of advice, told me — briefly — the story of their professional life, and shared some personal details in the story as well. I will perhaps always remember this email because the person told me an entire story rather than giving me short advice, which was immensely useful and changed my way of thinking on a few different things. If the email was a list of advice, I would likely not have as much comprehension over its contents.

Everything is a story in some way. Your experience in high school; the books you have read; your family; your most recent trip with your friends. Products are stories as well, especially when you reflect on how companies got started. In the context of startups, the most useful advice given in the industry is through stories. Founders prefer advice from founders who have been through it all before and who tell their stories than from other people who have little experience and who tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. Everyone has a different experience in building a company, so most advice will be useless for most entrepreneurs. Stories, however, give the listener access to a plethora of wisdom on which they can reflect at any time. I bet that any founder would prefer to hear the story of Airbnb’s founders being called a “cockroach” by Paul Graham after taking in a box of homemade cereal to their Y Combinator interview than being told simply “work hard; don’t give up”.

Listen to advice; ignore it. Don’t give advice; tell stories. Be a storyteller.

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