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The Power of Stories to Communicate

Stories are a wonderful way of expressing ideas, facts or points of view. In the hands of a skillful master, a well crafted story can both simplify and communicate complex concepts.

One of my favorite gifted story-tellers was the late Carl Sagan who could convey difficult scientific theories in terms that were fascinating, interesting and yet understandable by the average Greg. And trust me that is no small accomplishment.

Rather than a boring recital of the scientific explanation of "artificial selection" which Wikipedia defines as "the process of intentional or unintentional modification of a species through human actions which encourages the breeding of certain traits over others", Carl had another approach.

Imagine we have a magic window in which we can peer into the past. The year is 1185 and you are watching a great naval battle in an inland-sea in Japan. There are two warring factions of samurai warriors. The smaller fleet is defending the right of the seven-year old Emperor to rule Japan. The larger fleet consists of warriors who feel they have the right to rule the land. As the battle ensues, it becomes clear that the smaller fleet of the emperor is losing badly. We watch in astonishment as rather than surrender, the remaining samurai warriors of the emperor and the emperor himself cast themselves into the sea where they all drown. An honorable death is cherished more than potential survival through the humility of surrender.

Our story does not end here however. We continue to observe what happens at this inland sea over the next 800 years. We observe the fisherman who catch crabs from its waters. They look at the back of each crab they catch. If the back bears any resemblance to the face of a samurai warrior, they put it back out, of respect for the fallen warriors of that long ago battle. Over the centuries, a strange thing begins to happen. In the early years after the battle, the returned crabs bear a vague resemblance to the face of a samurai warrior, but as time passes we see that more and more of the crabs begin to bear an uncanny resemblance to the honored samurai. The scientific explanation for this remarkable process is called artificial selection. Those respectful fisherman, over the course of eight centuries intervened in the natural selection process. They determined which biological characteristics were most desirable. They literally changed the course of nature and the evolution pattern of the crabs. From our view into the past we see that human intervention can have profound implications for other species.

Isn't Carl's approach more robust, illustrative and memorable? He was able to emulate the "Philosophy of Teaching" of another hero of mine Richard Feynman: "First figure out WHY you want the students to learn the subject and WHAT you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense." Carl had a masterful way to harness the power of stories to embody this approach.

Together, our challenge is to use the innate power of story-telling to better convey ideas, improve understanding, and simplify communications. Whatever our profession or field of endeavor, a good story will help us to express our message. Once upon a time, there was a ...........