The secret power stories have on our understanding

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Hon­est­ly, the last place I thought I’d hear a good sto­ry was on IRS’s web­site. Did you know they’re pret­ty effec­tive a using sto­ries?

The IRS uses stories???

A few weeks ago, I filed my tax­es. I had to print a report toward the end. I couldn’t fig­ure out what this one term meant: Spe­cial Depre­ci­a­tion Allowance—I’m not a math guy. I’m not too good with num­bers. It stressed me out.

So, I did what everyone does: I turned to Google.

Tried a few dif­fer­ent web­sites. Scanned. Skimmed. Still couldn’t fig­ure it out. Final­ly, I resort­ed to click­ing the IRS’s web­site. I wasn’t expect­ing to under­stand any­thing. The intro­duc­tion reads:

You can take a spe­cial depre­ci­a­tion allowance to recov­er part of the cost of qual­i­fied prop­er­ty (defined next), placed in ser­vice dur­ing the tax year. The allowance applies only for the first year you place the prop­er­ty in ser­vice. For qual­i­fied prop­er­ty placed in ser­vice in 2016, you can take an addi­tion­al 50% spe­cial allowance.” (

My heart sank. I was still con­fused. This wasn’t hard to read. I know it’s English—it’s just not what I need­ed. I couldn’t use this infor­ma­tion. I was out of options. I scanned the whole page one last time, thank­ful for the bold head­ings. I saw “Depre­cia­ble Basis” — but my eye jumped to “Exam­ple” a few lines down:

On Novem­ber 1, 2016, Tom Brown bought and placed in ser­vice in his busi­ness qual­i­fied prop­er­ty that cost $450,000. He did not elect to claim a sec­tion 179 deduc­tion. He deducts 50% of the cost ($225,000) as a spe­cial depre­ci­a­tion allowance for 2016. He uses the remain­ing $225,000 of cost to fig­ure his reg­u­lar MACRS depre­ci­a­tion deduc­tion for 2016 and lat­er years.” (

It turns out that’s exact­ly what I need­ed to know! It read like a nov­el! It wasn’t “pure infor­ma­tion,” it was a sto­ry. I could kind of relate to Tom Brown. My prop­er­ty wasn’t worth $450k, but I was won­der­ing why the report dep­re­cat­ed only 50% of each asset. This lit­tle sto­ry made it all click for me. Like mag­ic.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Stories work like magic.[/shareable]

Becoming Tom Brown

It’s not a long sto­ry. It’s not a par­tic­u­lar­ly good sto­ry. It describes a real­is­tic sit­u­a­tion and what the spe­cial depre­ci­a­tion allowance means for Tom Brown. I didn’t just need a def­i­n­i­tion, I need­ed to know how it works. This sto­ry allowed me to “become Tom Brown” for a moment to see if his sit­u­a­tion was sim­i­lar to mine. For­tu­nate­ly, it was. And then it all made sense.

Stories grab everyone—not just me

Yes, we all learn in dif­fer­ent ways. How­ev­er the effec­tive­ness of sto­ries isn’t lim­it­ed to lit­er­ary enthu­si­asts and writ­ers like me. It turns out—accord­ing to well-researched cog­ni­tive stud­ies—humans are wired for sto­ry. Our brains can not resist sto­ries. When we hear a sto­ry, we’re drawn in. We paint pic­tures and direct mini-films in our head. We fill in the gaps.

For instance, if I described a small girl run­ning through a sprin­kler with a big pop­si­cle grin (like Chuck Wicks does in his song “Steal­ing Cin­derel­la”), what’s in your head? You’re prob­a­bly already telling your­self a sto­ry.

I didn’t say it was sum­mer, but I bet your brain did. This tiny detail has your brain churn­ing. You can prob­a­bly imag­ine the col­or of her hair, the deep green grass, the smell of burg­ers in the dis­tance, the seren­i­ty of a sum­mer night. You’re imag­in­ing what it will be like when summer’s back.

Stories speed up understanding

Although I rec­og­nize the IRS sto­ry isn’t the begin­ning of the next great Amer­i­can nov­el, it helped me under­stand infor­ma­tion more quick­ly. You can use the pow­er of sto­ries to help peo­ple under­stand your stuff more quick­ly. You don’t have to write an entire book, just sim­ply use a sto­ry tem­plate to be more clear.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Use the pow­er of sto­ries to help peo­ple under­stand your stuff more quickly.[/shareable]

Here’s the IRS sto­ry tem­plate: On [date], [Some­one] did some­thing. They didn’t [do some­thing else]. Because of that, they’re able to do [new thing]. And because of that [they now do this oth­er thing]. Because of that, their future looks [like this].

My exam­ple: On Sun­day, Josh Mitchell drove to down­town Bal­ti­more. He didn’t remem­ber to grab his EZ Pass. Because of that, he got stuck at the toll and had to wait an addi­tion­al 10 min­utes and couldn’t use the express lane. Because of that, he will NEVER for­get the EZ Pass again!

Zig Ziglar says every­one wants two things: to be right and to be under­stood. You can use the pow­er of sto­ries to increase the like­li­hood that oth­ers under­stand you. Here are a few prac­ti­cal take­aways:

  1. Sto­ries cut the resis­tance. Accord­ing to Jonathan Gotschall, our brains don’t “will­ing­ly” sus­pend dis­be­lief. They MUST sus­pend dis­be­lief. You can prob­a­bly still imag­ine the sum­mer night. The research is clear: sto­ries are eas­i­er to under­stand than straight up “data.”
  2. Sto­ries make infor­ma­tion more relat­able. Peo­ple can imag­ine they are the char­ac­ter (or some­one they know is the char­ac­ter). This can help peo­ple imag­ine the sce­nario and see if it relates to their life.
  3. Our brains are wired for sto­ry. Our brains are always on the look­out for a “true actor” and “true action.” When you tell a sto­ry, you make it eas­i­er to iden­ti­fy the “true actor”—which the brain is wired to look for first. (You can learn more about this in Mas­ter­ing Work­place Writ­ing)

Go use stories

Too many peo­ple say “tell your sto­ry.” That’s great and all—but I sug­gest you USE the pow­er of sto­ry to be more effec­tive in your work and at home. The next time you’re hav­ing trou­ble under­stand­ing some­thing, ask some­one to explain it using a sto­ry. If some­one doesn’t under­stand YOU, try a quick sto­ry and see how it works.

[reminder]Can you think of a time when a sto­ry helped you understand?[/reminder]

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