Melinda Gates has developed her skill as a storyteller because she knows this fundamental secret of persuasion: Statistics don't inspire, stories do. 

Her new book,The Moment of Lift, can make you a more persuasive speaker on any topic, but it's not about communication. The book is about empowering women to change the world.

For example, on a visit to India, Gates met with group of women farmers combining their skills to learn new strategies. One woman said she wasn't allowed to live in the same house as her mother-in-law. She didn't have enough money to buy soap. She washed with ash and mud.

After meeting regularly with the "self-help group" of women farmers, she learned to purchase new seeds, plant more crops, and get better yields. The farmer made enough money to buy her son a bike. She's back in the house.

"You want to talk about being respected by your mother-in-law? Buy your son a bike," writes Gates.

The farmer's story is just one of the dozens of heartbreaking--and inspiring--stories that fill the pages of Gates's book. It's a story that can't be told in charts and graphs.

Gates is an exceptional communicator because she balances stories and statistics to get you to care. Adopting her approach will make you more persuasive about any topic that fires you up, especially if you're trying to persuade others to take action.  

Stories lead your listeners to action

You'll find plenty of data in Gates's book. For example, 750 million people still live in extreme poverty. Gates argues that lifting them out of poverty means empowering women first. But 750 million is simply too large a number for us to wrap our minds around.

We tune out when we hear big numbers. We bond over stories.

After Bill Gates--Melinda's husband and co-partner at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--had read the finished book, he wrote in his blog: "What is really impressive about the book is the way Melinda combines her mastery of data with her ability to tell powerful stories about individual women she has met."

He's right. Years of listening to stories from women in extreme hardship gave Melinda a deep insight into the conditions that lead to inequity as well as the conditions required to help women flourish.

"That's the power of stories," Melinda Gates wrote in an Instagram post in 2016. "They open our hearts to a new place, which opens our minds, which often leads to action."

In The Moment of Lift, the first statistics do not appear until page 17, well after you've heard stories about, for example, the Malawi women who walked 10 miles in the heat to get their kids vaccinated. It was "a hard day for women whose lives were already hard," Gates writes.

If you're delivering a presentation or writing a document intended to inspire people to action, don't start with statistics. Data follows a story. Data supports an argument. The stories should come first. 

Tell stories to release the "moral molecule"

Neuroscientists like Dr. Paul Zak have discovered that stories change your brain--in a good way. Stories bind us together. Zak's research focuses on oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for feeling empathy. Zak calls oxytocin the "moral molecule," because a notable rise in oxytocin in the bloodstream make people more generous, charitable, and compassionate.

In Zak's lab experiments, he found that the best way to boost oxytocin in another person is to tell them a moving story.

It shouldn't be a surprise. Anthropologists believe that storytelling was a major milestone in human development. Sharing stories educated other tribe members, and bonded them to act together for the good of the group. 

Melinda Gates is a great storyteller--and story gatherer. She lives in the villages and homes of the women she profiles. She listens attentively and brings back their stories to educate those whose lives are far removed from the hardships these women face every day.  

In Gates's book, there are more stories than statistics. It's done on purpose. If you want to get your audience to care, sharing real stories of real people will have a far-reaching impact.

Published on: Apr 23, 2019
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