Anchoring: A Simple Storytelling Trick to Make Data Approachable and Memorable

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A few days ago, a friend and I were taking a late-night walk and ended up spending several blocks talking about the power of story. We work in different industries — tech vs. advertising — and sell our ideas to different audiences — team/stakeholders vs. clients/customers — but for both of us, finding the right story can make all the difference.

The next day, I got a series of texts about a presentation he was working on, and how hard it was to get the story right. He had pages and pages of research, notes and ideas, but the main story remained elusive.

Just knowing that stories can be powerful tools to articulate an idea or pitch a client isn’t enough. The hard part is uncovering the story buried in all the details, and then making that story stick.

So I shared some of the following advice with him…

Anchors are powerful storytelling tools

One of the most reliable methods I’ve found to make a story stick is to link it to an existing anchor in our brain. When we receive information through bullet points and text alone, only the language processing centers of our brain get activated. Often, information processed this way isn’t remember, because we aren’t able to relate it to something else we’ve already experienced or know.

In contrast, when we hear something that reminds us of some other memory or sensory experience that we’ve had, it is more easily remembered. It sticks with us because it has an existing anchor in our brain. The more anchors a piece of information has, the more likely it is to be remembered.

The first time I was going to present at our company’s monthly meeting, I asked our CEO if it would be okay for me to use Adele’s song “Hello” in my slide. It was the fall of 2015 and that song had gotten so popular that it had it had inspired a skit on SNL.

I had done over 250 cold-calls to users that month and so a song about trying to reach someone who doesn’t expect to hear from you felt strangely appropriate:

“Hello, can you hear me?
I’m in California ….
Hello from the other side
I must have called a thousand times…”

Our CEO gave me a sideways look and said, “Okay, so long as it isn’t a gif.” This was the start to a tradition that I would try to keep every few months of using something salient in pop-culture or events to have a bit of fun with my presentations.

By framing my work in the context of an existing story, I not only anchor new information to something that my audience is already familiar with, but I also push myself to get at the heart of our work. There is no room for extraneous details in a story-form narrative

Pop-culture and current events are a perfect vehicle for making otherwise dry data more palatable, and ultimately, more memorable.

One of my all-time favorite slides of this type was the one that I told in the form of a Star Wars crawl (the yellow text that sets the stage before Star Wars movies). Star Wars: The Force Awakens, launched in December of 2015, and like the rest of the series, it was about a collaborative effort to fight against a seemingly impervious enemy.

At work, the past month had felt like a battle in which we had gained ground on one metric — questions answered — and lost ground on another — lessons watched. We were fighting against time, since the SAT was changing and would soon render our current efforts null. And, we were also doing a lot of collaborative work with the content team. While our efforts may not have been on the same level as epic space battles, it certainly felt like it.

Another favorite slide, and one that got the most positive response from others, was built around the Olympics. In July of 2016, I was struggling to determine what I’d present to the company because most of the work that we had done that month was under-the-surface. It is always hard to present something that doesn’t yet exist.

At the same time, I was watching and reading a lot about the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio. My favorite pre-Olympic media were always on the stories of the athletes — what they had to overcome to get to the games, their training, their personal challenges etc. Through those stories, you get a glimpse into the years of work that they do just to compete for a few seconds.

The story of these Olympic athletes’ long months of training for what was to come rang true with our long preparing for a series of tests we would be running later that summer.

Make this work for you

For me, using current event or pop-culture stories that others can relate to has helped me to tell the story of my work in a way that is approachable and memorable. Here are a few tips on how to do this (it’s more than slapping a funny gif onto your slide):

These traits all serve the purpose of anchoring the idea in something that already exists in the mind of the audience. Our brains are great story-tellers and time-travelers, easily floating from past events into projected future worlds. Tapping into that natural neural ability helps to solidify the importance of the current moment.

I reconnected with my friend the strategist a few days ago. He and his boss and finally aligned on a simple storyline that evoked an emotional response from their client and helped to paint a vision for the future of the brand. And they worked happily ever after. The end.