Recently, someone suggested to me that stories can be dangerously, deceptively simple. She suggested that our tendency to assign narratives to sporting events, classical music scores, history, and so on can cause people to distort or misunderstand complex systems; in fact, they may actually lead us farther away from the truth. Does asserting that the most recent economic crisis started with the easy availability of mortgages, for example, ignore important nuances in cause and effect? 

Sure, stories can be overly simple. People can even use them as a tool for deception. But more often than not, they work to surface and illuminate truth. I offer the following in defense of story, and to explain how we can use stories to respectfully engage toward understanding and empathy:

Stories are invitational. Transactional storytelling can be problematic. Telling implies a giver and a taker. Assuming that your listener will simply take in your story, and understand and apply it the same way you do is self-centered and a remnant of old-school communication. But when you share a story in a way that invites your listener to conjure their own experiences, you respect and empower listeners. When you share a story, it connects with your listeners’ existing knowledge and invites them toward their own understanding of the experience you are sharing. In a recent issue of New York Magazine, for example, Chef Dan Barber wrote:

My mother died when I was very young and I grew up with my father making me these like horrible scrambled eggs for breakfast. Terrible, I mean like the things that are so dry and that have been on the buffet line for 45 minutes when you get there, or an hour, two hours, right? 

I got strep throat—I must have been like 13 or 14. Terrible strep throat. And my aunt, who is a great, great cook—she trained in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris or whatever—she cooked for me. I remember my throat was so sore and she cooked me scrambled eggs over a double boiler, you know, so they were supersoft and runny and she whisked them and they were like little clouds. I’ll never forget it—I was starting to feel better, so I had a little bit of an appetite, and they just slid down my throat. I’ll never forget the feeling. It was revelatory. I felt like I’d never tasted an egg before. 

Do you remember eating terrible eggs? Or do you remember a revelatory food experience? Do you recall feeling ill and someone giving you a comforting meal?

A story doesn’t tell someone what to do; a good story allows listeners to project themselves into and thoroughly imagine the proffered situation, because they have experienced, considered, or aspired to something similar. Stories invite listeners to walk around inside an idea and make it their own. The stories you share should be an invitation to engage. You should forefront your listener and provide ample opportunity for them to share stories in response to yours.

Stories are efficient structures for delivering both complex and emotional information. Stories help us both focus on the connections between pieces of information and recognize patterns. Stories also provide context, enabling listeners and readers to create meaning out of complexity and confusion. Because of this, story often succeeds where no other communication vehicle can.

Consider this complex, emotional, and yet structurally simple story from Andrew Cutting, director of Nonprofit Research and Partnerships, Foraker Group:

I’ve always been honest with my six-year old daughter, Ellie, showing her photos of the hospital I’ve helped build in South Sudan and of the community it serves. I explained the challenges faced by the people there and why I frequently travel to South Sudan to help ensure that they have medical care.

One evening, after Ellie and I were looking at photos of South Sudan together, she came to me with her piggybank. “Take it all!” she implored. “I want to help the people in South Sudan.”

After returning from my most recent trip, Ellie and I looked at my new photos. She became angry. “I don’t understand! I gave you all my money! Why aren’t things better there?”

Can you relate to Ellie’s disappointment and anger? Have you experienced adult donors reacting similarly? Can you imagine Andrew’s anguish at having to formulate a succinct and comforting response?

The danger lies in over-simplicity and in insisting that everything can be reduced to one story. People do like stories with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and with easily identifiable archetypes. It is a pattern-matching exercise, and these familiar elements can be extremely comforting. 

But life is complex. Our journeys are circuitous. People and situations are often surprising. And there is wisdom in the saying that there are three kinds of stories: the one you are telling, the one they are telling, and the truth. One story is unlikely to reflect the truth of a person’s life, let alone the lives of others. 

Toward the end of her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” (almost 10 million well-deserved views!), writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:

I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.

But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate health care. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash, because our fire trucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa, co-founder of Shine Squad, referenced Adichie’s talk in explaining the difficulty of defining sexual harassment: “There is a danger of having a single story. To have something be so cut and dry is actually reductive to the people who are living the experiences.”

Labeling stories “dangerous” and dismissing them robs us of opportunities for true, two-way communication, and increased understanding of complex situations and experiences. We may desire simplicity, but we mostly crave empathy. 

We can embrace the benevolence of story when we reject the simplicity of single stories, and make the effort to seek out and share stories about complex systems and people.