Stories vs Bullet Points: Getting the Point Across
Photo courtesy Thomas Hawk

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a great book, and it’s unfortunate that I’ve been unable (or unwilling) to set aside the time to read this one all the way through while taking notes. Yup, I’m a geek sometimes. Especially when I find a great book.

I am going to include a long quote here that you need to read. I’m posting it without permission only because I really want you folks to get the idea here.

After telling the story of 3 groups of people who’s performances were measured, the following was found:

… Simulating past events is much more helpful than simulating future outcomes. In fact, the gap between the groups opened up immediately after the first session in the lab. By the first night, the event-simulation people were already experiencing a positive mood boost compared with the other two groups.

When the groups returned a week later, the event simulators’ advantage had grown wider. They were more likely to have taken specific action to solve their problems. They were more likely to have sought advice and support from others. They were more likely to report that they had learned something and grown.

You may find these results a bit counterintuitive, because the pop-psychology literature is full of gurus urging you to visualize success. It turns out that a positive mental attitude isn’t quite enough to get the job done. Maybe financial gurus shouldn’t be telling us to imagine that we’re filthy rich; instead, they should be telling us to replay the steps that led to our being poor.

… [info on why mental simulation works] …

Mental simulations help us manage emotions. There is a standard treatment for phobias of various kinds – spiders, public speaking, airplane travel, and others. Patients are introduced to a relaxation procedure that inhibits anxiety, and then asked to visualize exposure to the thing they fear. The first visualizations start at the periphery of the fear. For example, someone who’s afraid of air travel might start by thinking about the drive to the airport. The therapist leads the patient through a series of visualizations that get closer and closer to the heart of the fear (“Now the airplanes’ engines are revving up on the runway, sounding louder and louder . . .”). Each time the visualizations create anxiety, the person pauses for a moment and uses the relaxation technique to restore equilibrium.

Notice that these visualizations focus on the events themselves – the process, rather than the outcomes. No one has ever been cured of a phobia by imagining how happy they’ll be when it’s gone.

Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.

The takeaway is simple: Mental simulation is not as good as actually doing something, but it’s the next best thing. And, to circle back to the world of sticky ideas, what we’re suggesting is that the right kind of story is, effectively, a simulation. Stories are like flight simulators for the brain.

… Why is hearing [a] story better than a warning in [a] training manual? It’s better for precisely the reason that flight simulators are better for pilots than stacks of instructional flash cards. The more that training simulates the actions we must take in the world, the more effective it will be.

A story is powerful because it provides the context missing from abstract prose. It’s back to the Velcro theory of memory, the idea that the more hooks we put into our ideas, the better they’ll stick. The … story builds in emotions … historical background … [and] at the end, it delivers a kind of meta-level moral.

This is the role that stories play – putting knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence. More like a flight simulator. Being the audience for a story isn’t so passive, after all. Inside, we’re getting ready to act.


Thanks for sticking with me and reading all that. The point of that entire quote is that stories engage your readers, more than you know. If you want to be effective in spreading ideas, write stories. If you want your readers to see your information and then just leave, write bullet points.

It all depends on what you want.

Question for you: How many publications (blogs included) do you subscribe to that give you only bullet points? How many publications do you subscribe to tell you stories?

[tags]statistics, stats, stories, bullet points, effectiveness, ideas, spread[/tags]

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

2 Comments on "Stories vs Bullet Points: Getting the Point Across"

  1. Lee LeFever says:

    Man I love that book – it was hugely inspirational to the things we’re doing with the Common Craft Show. I should sleep with it under my pillow.

  2. nate says:


    First, thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate it.

    Second, I’m glad you liked the book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and I definitely want to spread the love around.

    Third, your Common Craft Show is amazing! If I could get a small glimpse of what you guys have from applying this stuff, I’d be so pleased. But, I’ll just have to keep promoting you guys for the time being. Keep up the good work! It’s awesome.

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