The secret power stories have on our understanding

March 28, 2017

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. It stressed me out.

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

I 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.

Stories work like magic.

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 heads. 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.

Use the power of stories to help people understand your stuff more quickly.

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.

Can you think of a time when a story helped you understand?

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