Why story?

Context and relevance

The art and science of engaging other minds

How do you win a grant? Now that’s a million dollar question. Some say it’s a lottery; others say it’s a cutthroat competition; others yet suspect politics at work. For all we know, and assuming fair play, having brilliant ideas is no longer enough to secure research funding. So, how are winners chosen? All things being equal, what makes a given submission stand out from the crowd?

We argue that the magic of reader engagement plays an important role: a proposal that can captivate, inspire, and hold the attention of its readers is in with a good shot! But what textual features trigger this desirable response, and aid success? We’ve searched far and wide, and found remarkable answers. Among the strongest contenders is story. As Kendall Haven writes:

“Research confirms that if you use … effective story structure for your communications, your information reaches a listener’s conscious mind and memory more accurately and vividly than if you put that same information into any other narrative form.”

Kendall Haven, Story Smart (2014), p. 6

Story as you wouldn’t know it

But isn’t that all just rhetorical fluff? As Helen Sword observes in her Stylish Academic Writing (2012), this question is not uncommon among academics. “Why, they ask, should we accessorize our research with gratuitous stylistic flourishes? Doesn’t overt attention to style signal intellectual shallowness, a privileging of form over content? And won’t colleagues reject as unserious any academic writing that deliberately seeks to engage and entertain, rather than merely to inform, its readers?” We concur with Sword that this is a largely unfounded fear, and “that elegant ideas deserve elegant expression; that intellectual creativity thrives best in an atmosphere of experimentation rather than conformity; and that, even within the constraints of disciplinary norms, most academics enjoy a far wider range of stylistic choices than they realize” (Sword 2012, p. vii).

The form through which we choose to present an idea – how we say it or write it – undeniably impacts what others make of our message: whether they understand it in the first place (a pretty big deal, we argue!), what they think and how they feel about it, and so on. Did you know that story elements activate mental attention? And that imparting information alone is not enough – that we also need context and relevance to make it meaningful? You want your readers to find themselves invested, to think: “how marvellous, how noteworthy, how curious!” But wait. You might be wondering what this has to do with academic prose. Grants, after all, are complex, technical beasts governed by templates and word limits. Surely these constraints afford no room for story, right? Well, it depends on how you define it. Forget: “Once upon a time…” Not that kind of story! Consider structure. Consider the architecture of any text:

Story is a way of structuring information … that most effectively creates the essential context and relevance that engage receivers and enhance memory and the creation of meaning. The information contained in a story may be fact or fiction, invented or carefully researched and validated. Story is the framework, not the content hung on that scaffolding.

Kendall Haven, Story Proof (2007), pp. 15–16

Story structure makes it easy for the mind to extract and understand vital information, to see its importance, to feel the costs, and to dream of the benefits. This is exactly what you want your grant panel to experience – although it works with any content, genre, or audience. At Mind Your Way, we carefully search for, and elevate, your story, so that your brilliant ideas are met with due applause in the world.

Intrigued? Then let’s start the journey!

For well over 100,000 years before there was writing, humans have relied on stories to communicate and to archive (in human memory) all key events, histories, concepts, beliefs, and attitudes. Extensive research has shown that, because of this eons-long dependence on story, human brains are literally evolutionarily hard-wired to make sense, to think, to understand, and to remember in specific story terms and elements … It is not that we can use story thinking. It is that our brains are wired so that we must use story thinking ― all the time.

Kendall Haven, Story Smart (2014), p. 3