Ep 128: Persuade Your Teen With Story

Episode Summary

Lisa Cron, author of the new book Story or Die, shows us how to use and create powerful stories that can drive teens to change their bad behavior without you even asking.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Often as parents we think telling our teen the facts about texting and driving or vaping will show them that they need to change their behavior. The danger is so clear! When we are in the same room or car as our teen, they may go along with us, but spewing facts at someone rarely causes a person to affect long-term changes to their behavior. But how exactly can you persuade your teen to change for the better if they reject facts? The answer is simple: tell a story. 

We are affected by stories every moment of the day. In fact, our brains are wired to create narratives about the world and our own lives. Rarely do objective facts persuade as strongly as an emotionally engaging story. But telling a story properly is another matter. 

Fortunately this week, story-crafting expert Lisa Cron, is ready to help us learn how to spin a tale. Cron is an accomplished writer, literary agent, and TV producer. She’s the author of the new book Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life. Cron believes that to make what you say impactful, you have to switch from using facts to telling an engaging emotional story. In today’s episode, Cron shares useful advice on how to get your teens to obey your wishes and see your perspective by changing the way you share information with them. 

Don’t Face the Facts

Cron expresses that more logically minded parents may think that giving their teens the cold hard facts will convince them that they’re right about something. She shares that there are four different types of facts: warning, validating, conflicting, and neutral. But regardless of what type of fact you use with them, none will work in a fundamental disagreement with your teen. 

Say your 17-year-old teen thinks that going to a college party isn’t a big deal. They say “I’ll be responsible, I won’t do anything reckless, I promise to be home at 1am.” You know that regardless of what they say, it’s just not a good idea. So you give your teen a warning fact: “Lots of assault goes on at college parties.” They say they’ll be on alert for dangerous people. You tell them a neutral fact : ”Underage drinking is illegal.” They say they won’t drink—yah right! Face it, they have an excuse for every fact you bring up and nothing you say is going to get through to them. 

Cron says that when you bring up points that go directly against what a teenager believes, they’re biologically programmed to see it as a personal attack. This is called confirmation bias. 

It derives from basic human survival tactics. People used to form tribes of like minded individuals because it would keep them safe. So when we are confronted by facts that oppose our beliefs, we view it as potentially dangerous. Cron explains that our brain’s primary function is to take care of the body. When we are psychologically attacked, our bodies are triggered and we shut down. So rather than insisting we’re right, parents need to focus on empathizing with their teens.

Get Emotional

People say decisions should be made void of emotion. Cron says that this is impossible because nothing ever happens to us that’s not accompanied by emotions. In actuality, we make decisions based on how a rational analysis of something made us feel. Memories are really just past recordings of emotions that exist in our brains to help us remember things. Recall that one time when you lost your keys, scoured your whole house to find it, and ended up being thirty minutes late to an important meeting? You didn’t remember where your keys were because you had no emotional attachment to the random dish you left them in. You might have remembered where you put them if you make up a kooky song about putting it in the same place every day.

No one will remember something you told them if they have no connection to it. So in order to get teens to remember a lesson or chore they need to do, parents must tie it to an emotion. You need to see from your teens perspective how your command is affecting them. Is it helping or hurting them? What emotion is it pulling out of them? Tell them a story of why doing what you ask of them will have a positive effect on them. If they happen to be boy crazy, and you’re trying to get them to cook dinner, tell them how you got your spouse to fall in love with you by cooking their favorite meal. If they’d rather hang out with their friends than babysit their younger brother, tell them how a night in with your brother led you on an adventurous scavenger hunt through your neighborhood.

What if you don’t want to share the many embarrassing or inappropriate stories from your youth? Cron insists you should. According to her, the best way to add emotion and create a powerful story is to admit mistakes. Teenagers generally don’t want to listen to parents who think they’re perfect and know better. So share a tale of when you’ve made stupid decisions or gotten yourself into sticky situations. As an author, Cron believes that readers find flawless characters to be inauthentic and boring. What people are actually drawn to is vulnerability. So when you’re crafting a cautionary tale to warn your teen of the dangers of texting and driving, don’t be afraid to tell them about the time you did so and ended up getting a $400 ticket. This’ll show them that parents are not perfect. They make the same silly (and costly) mistakes that teens do. The thing we are most afraid of telling our teens may actually be what gets through to them the most. 

Aha Moment

Cron says that every story must have an aha moment. A point when you realize the thing you need to do is worth the cost you’re giving up. These moments should be crafted around what you specifically want your teen to take away from the story. If you’re telling them a story because you want them to quit a nasty habit of theirs, they need to have a subjective reason for quitting. Because nobody makes a change for no reason. They change because life has taught them that there is a better way of doing things. You must find your teens motivations for doing whatever it is that’s bothering you and create a greater incentive for them to do it your way. 

In this episode we discuss….

  • Determining Your Call to Action in a Story
  • Why Saying “Go to Your Room and Think About What You’ve Done” Never Works
  • Understanding Teenagers Motivations for Misbehaving
  • How to Get Your Teen to Stop Texting and Driving

This week’s episode with Lisa Cron was exceptionally eye-opening and insightful. I walked away with a greater understanding of how to get through to teenagers and I hope you do too!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me a little bit about what inspired this book. This is your third book you said. The previous one was Wired for Story. This one is Story or Die. You have written previous books about story, so what made you then think we needed another book on it? And what was the inspiration for this one?

Lisa: Okay. Two things. I mean, one is this one is for a really different audience. The first two books were for writers and it was really if you wanted to write a novel, or a memoir, or a Tweet anything, this is what we’re wired for. The truth is what we’re wired to respond to in any kind of a story, whether a novel or just a headline is, how is this going to affect me given my agenda? Is it going to help me or is it going to hurt me? We come to absolutely everything wired to ask that question.

Lisa: While the first two books were for writers and people who were trying to write a novel that was going to pull a reader in and get that Vulcan mind-meld between the reader and the protagonist, because literally when we’re lost in a story, we are outside of reality, we’ve got into the reality of the story. Literally, it’s traveling the same neural pathways as it would if it was actually happening to us.

Lisa: My goal was to help writers do that, but for me, diving into all of this and seeing what it was that pulled us in really coincided with a boom in neuroscience. It went from this is my theory about what we’re responding to. No, no, this is brain science. This is in fact what we’re responding to. And again, not just in stories, but in life. So the first two books were for the writing world because in my humble opinion, as I am very fond of saying, I think everything that’s taught about writing is not only wrong, but diametrically opposed to what actually is right, 100%. As I’m fond of saying, “If the writing world needed a world that gives advice for a person, I would punch it in the nose and go to jail happily. But we are affected by stories every minute of every day, whether we know it or not, and mostly we don’t know it, and that’s kind of terrifying.

Lisa: With this book, it goes to a completely different audience. In other words, it flipped it and went to, we are wired for story. Therefore, when you are trying to communicate anything to anyone, to engage anyone, to persuade anyone of anything, to change anybody’s mind about anything, there’s only really one way to do it. And that is through story. Because I think at this particular juncture in our human world out there, I think none of us, the one thing we can all agree on, regardless which side of the divide we’re on is that when we’re trying to convince anyone, or engage anyone, or change anyone’s mind, whether it’s our significant other or crazy uncle Ernie, or our teenage son or daughter, giving them the facts doesn’t work.

Andy: It really doesn’t.

Lisa: Really often, facts that we give, and we’re hoping it’s going to inform, instead it inflames and does the exact opposite. I mean, I had two goals with this book. One was to really help people understand what it is that does engage us. And then step-by-step is what I go through in the book to really dive into, whose mind are you trying to change? Whether it’s something you’re trying to sell or you want somebody to vote for someone, or to support your cause, or to get your teenage kid not to text and drive, it’s really to dive into and be able to really understand and empathize with them, understand what it is you’re trying to get them to do, understand in their point of view, not from yours, but from their point of view, why they don’t want to do what you want them to do, why aren’t they doing it? Why are they doing what it is they’re already doing that you definitely think they should not be doing? Why does it matter to them not you, but them?

Lisa: That is a really hard thing to do. Again, as I’m fond of saying, “Not because we’re stubborn. Not because we’re self-centered, but literally because of how we’re wired. We’re wired to see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” So it’s the ability to step out, and something that I think again, we’re short of these days, not because it’s our fault. I mean, the whole point of everything I’m writing is it’s not our fault. We’re not doing it on purpose. We’re not jerks. We’re not self-centered, but it has to do with how we’re wired. Right now, I think we’re short on empathy. You can’t change someone’s mind about anything until you can empathize with why they’re not doing what it is you want them to do. People don’t listen until they feel heard.

Andy: I think a lot of this stuff in this book really resonates with what we talk about here, talking to teens, how to discuss difficult topics with teenagers. Because as you point out, a lot of times sharing the facts does not seem to work when you’re trying to convince your teenager not to vape, telling them the facts about vaping doesn’t necessarily lead them to make any different decisions when they’re being peer pressured to vape at school. And so I think what’s really interesting to me is, what can we do to start to steer them in different directions and have influence? Facts don’t seem to do it.

Andy: You point out that there are four different types of facts: Neutral facts, warning facts, validating facts, and conflicting facts. Why do you spend time on this in your book? What do you think is important to know about the different types of facts?

Lisa: I think, I mean, the reason it’s important to understand the different types of facts is to understand the overall point, which is that facts don’t work. I mean, when you give someone a fact, you assume that that fact is going to have the same meaning for them that it does for you, because we read our meaning into everything. We don’t think of it as, “This is what I read into the fact, and this is what someone else might read into it.” We just think, “Well, this is what the fact says.” And so validating fact would be a fact that we’re listening to and we go, “Yeah, I completely believe that.” That means that not only we have a context to give meaning to that fact, but we’re giving that meaning our own fact. To someone else, it might have a completely different meaning.

Lisa: When you give someone a conflicting fact, something that goes to the opposite of what they believe, at that point, it’s really interesting what happens because we tend to think people are stubborn. They’re not listening. What’s wrong with them? Literally what happens is it comes across biologically as a personal attack because the way that we’re wired, once we believe something to be true, it becomes part of our self-identity. More than that, it becomes part of our self-identity in terms of, and this is a word that has been villainized at the moment, and certainly I can understand why it’s made pejorative, which is tribally, in other words, you’re attacking myself identity and my identity to my tribe.

Lisa: But the truth is, that’s what we’re wired for. We’re wired to belong to a tribe. Meaning a group of people, who if we believe the same thing and work together, they are going to keep us safe. About 100,000 years ago when our brain had it’s last big growth spurt, and what you were probably taught, and most of us were taught was that that was when our brain got big so that we would have the ability to think analytically. And that is what happened.

Lisa: What social scientists and evolutionary biologists will tell us now is that was why we needed to learn to do that thing that they’ve been telling us to do since kindergarten, which is we needed to learn to work well with others.

Andy: Get along with people.

Lisa: Yeah. For me to belong to a group is as hard wired in our biology, in our neural wiring as is our need for food, air, and water. We are all people who need people. And people go, “I’m a lone wolf.” I always think, “Okay. You understand that wolves travel in packs? And if you look up the definition of a lone wolf in the wolf community, that is a wolf that has been ostracized from the pack and just left to die.” So that tribal identity is something that is in our DNA. It is there. When you turn around and you ask your kid not to vape, and you’re going to explain how… I mean, I remember thinking, that’s when vaping came out, it’s like they’re going, “Well, there’s no real downside.” It’s like, “They haven’t done the research yet. How can they possibly know all of this?”

Lisa: Of course, it does lead to the other… and who knows what you’re ingesting in your lung? But you start to give that and no way are you touching on the reason why they’re doing it. What happens when you come up to anyone, think about this for parents of teens. If your significant other comes up to you and says, “We have to talk.” The first thing you want to say back is, “Yeah, okay, but not now.” Because when you said we have to talk, you telegraph to me that you’re going to tell me something I don’t want to hear.

Andy: It’s not going to good. They’re not going to like that.

Lisa: So what I’m doing right now is I am now getting all of the ammunition of all the things I don’t like about you. So when you tell me why I shouldn’t do this, I’m going to start lobbing things at you. I mean, in other words, yeah, you’ve completely shut down. That’s what happens.

Lisa: I mean, I think something that we’ve all heard of for the past several years is that notion of confirmation bias, which is when we believe something, we literally either don’t hear or set up just to argue with anything that goes in the other direction. When you sit your kid down to say, don’t text and drive, or don’t vape, the minute they know you’re going to tell them to do something, up comes this defensive… I mean, literally it lands in your brain as a personal attack.

Lisa: There was a really interesting study. What this guy did was he wired them up. However, you get wired up for fMRI. He just literally, he knew what their political beliefs were and he just read them small, very short counter-arguments. As opposed to the thinking part of the brain coming up and going, “Let me take that in, let me figure that out. Do they have a point?”

Andy: Analyze that and see if it has a valid point. Yeah.

Lisa: Right. It landed as a physical attack. I mean, it landed as if the guy had said, “Put up your Dukes.” That’s what happens when you try to tell someone what to do. Again, whether it’s a teen, or whether it’s your significant other, or your boss, or crazy uncle Ernie, it just comes across like… But here’s the thing to think of, and watch it in your own life, you do the same thing. We all do it. It’s not just them. It’s us too, which is why when we give them the facts, we think they’re going to read the exact same meaning into it. They go, “Oh, I totally see what you mean.” And of course they’re not going to. Because when you’re asking somebody to give something up to change in any way, you’re inherently asking them to give something up and that something you’re asking to give up has meaning to them. If you’re ignoring what that meaning is, why should they pay attention to you? That’s why they don’t.

Andy: There’s a great quote in your book from the researcher who did that study, Jonas T. Kaplan, and it says, “The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body. The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When ourself feels attacked, our brain is going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body.” So it literally in the brain is the same thing. When you’re attacking someone’s beliefs, it activates the same brain regions as it would if you were attacking them physically.

Lisa: Yeah. Just think about in your own life, again, whichever side you’re on. If crazy uncle Ernie sits down and starts to tell you why you’re completely wrong, I mean think of that feeling. I think this moment all of us, no matter, again, what side we’re on, we’re very familiar with that feeling of just rage that starts to come on. It’s the same thing when someone says, “Here’s why you shouldn’t vape. Here’s why you shouldn’t text and drive.” Because again, as with the vaping or texting and driving, you’re giving them all of that and they’re thinking, “Yeah, but I’m okay.” For texting, “Don’t text and drive, it’s dangerous.” And they’re going, “Well, I’m proof it’s not because I’m still here.”

Andy: I do it all the time and so do all my friends and we’re fine.

Lisa: Exactly.

Andy: Another interesting thing from your book is this idea of emotion. You talk about how getting people to remember things is hard. One easy way to really enhance it is to link memories with emotions. You say, “Emotional memories are hard to forget. The stronger the emotion, the more resilient the memory.”

Lisa: Absolutely.

Andy: This is a neuroscientist, Elizabeth Phelps points out, “Memories of emotional events have a persistence and vividness other memories seem to lack.” Does that mean if we’re trying to get our kid to remember something, we need to get them super emotional and hyped up before we tell them, or what’s the practical lesson that we can learn about emotions and memories?

Lisa: Okay. Let’s talk about emotion first, because emotion is something that is one of the most misunderstood functions of who we are and how we’re wired, purposely misunderstood, I think, society misunderstands it. Because we’re taught to make any decision, right? Here’s how you make a decision. You want to marshal all the facts, all the data. You want to analyze it dispassionately in the cold light of objective reason.

Andy: Get rid of the emotion, just rational pros and cons list. Yeah.

Lisa: Because if you let emotion in, it’s going to cloud your judgment and you’re going to make a decision you’re going to ruin the morning. That’s a great model. It makes us feel-

Andy: Sounds good. Right.

Lisa: It makes us feel so secure. How many times have we been told and do we tell our kids, “It’s our ability to think rationally that makes us the master of own ship?” It’s a great model.

Andy: Yeah. I let my emotion get the better of me, I made the wrong decision in the heat of the moment. Yeah.

Lisa: It is 100% not true. We do not make decisions based on a rational analysis of the situation. We make decisions based on how that rational analysis makes us feel. We make every single decision we ever make based on emotion. The problem is we have been taught to think of emotion as emotional. You can’t see me, but I’m doing air quotes, which is a very narrow band or pitch of emotion that is over the top. Sure, we’ve all made that kind of a decision that we will ruin the morning. Not that we would admit it to anybody, but we do. But that is not what emotion is. Emotion is something that we feel every minute of every day. Nothing ever happens to us, or that we think about, or that we see that is not accompanied by a chorus of emotion. It’s literally a chemical reaction that our brilliant brain and nervous system translates from feeling into emotion that lets us know what things mean to us. When people go, “Calm down, you’re so over emotional. Get calm.” I always want to go, “Dude, are you aware of the fact that calm is an emotion?”

Lisa: If you couldn’t feel emotion, you couldn’t make a single rational decision. Emotion is the decider. If you couldn’t feel emotion, everything would be six of one, half a dozen of the other. You would never be able to make a decision. The reason we have emotion and the reason we remember memories with emotion is because our brain is… I literally just finished reading a book for this new book that I wrote called Your Brain is a Time Machine by a neuroscientist out here in L.A., and basically what he’s writing about, and this is in all the neuroscientific literature as well, is that the real purpose of our brain is to record past memories in order to predict the future. The memories that we record, I mean, people tend to think that our memory is like a video camera, like if it happened, you remember it. I mean if that was true, we would never lose our keys or our glasses. I mean, that’s just 100% is not true.

Lisa: What we remember are things that our brain has decided are going to matter to us. Meaning when something happens that matters, emotion comes up, we feel why it’s important, good or bad, and then your amygdala lights up, your limbic system comes on board and it gives the memory an evergreen backstage pass to, “I need to remember this, because in the future, this is going to come in handy.” That is how we survive. It’s what makes us adaptable to adapt to things like we’re all adapting now to things that we never thought we could adapt to. And yet, here we are adaptable. Because we are adaptable and past memories are what we use to predict the future. Every minute of every day that’s what you’re doing. Every situation you go in, you’re calling on past memories in order to figure out, is this safe or isn’t it? Is this going to get me what I want in this situation or isn’t it?

Lisa: And so when you tell someone something, I mean, the other two kinds of facts are facts if you give someone a fact and they have no context for it. In other words, they can’t ever see how it would ever affect them. Climate change is a big example of that. Scientists will give all of this data, and who understands what that is going to mean boots on the ground for us in 50 years? We can’t even interpret it, let alone to see how that very specific consequence would very specifically affect us. And those facts just go over our heads. We can’t even grab on to them.

Andy: Or you hear that like, I think you say, you hear the basic takeaway is it’s going to get eight degrees hotter in the next 100 years. It doesn’t sound so bad actually, another eight degrees. I mean, we can get it up into the 80s. Actually, that wouldn’t be too bad around here.

Lisa: I don’t like sweaters. That sounds good to me. But I mean, but that’s the point. When we give a fact… In fact, scientists have a really hard time with this because they just want to give facts, and they don’t want to personify it, and they don’t want to make statements. They literally… I mean, all people do, we give a fact and we assume other people know exactly what we mean. We assume that that not only do they know exactly what we mean and what it means to us, it’s going to mean the same thing to them. They’re going to understand therefore what we want them to do as a result, so we didn’t even have to say that. All they’ve got to do is get the fact.

Lisa: Most of the time our mind is wandering and we’re nodding and smiling. What we’re really thinking is, “Was that dentist appointment Tuesday or Thursday?” We’re not paying attention. Because I mean, that is the point. Our brains are there. We’re wired to only pay attention to things that do matter to us. Meaning things that happen when our expectations are broken. That’s what we’re always on the lookout for. If you bore us, if you give us something and expect us to understand what you want and we have no way of knowing, even if we try to pay attention, we’re still thinking, “I’m hungry. I wonder how much longer till lunch?” Just things that actually matter to us.

Andy: You point out in here that one of the best ways to add emotion and create a powerful story is to admit mistakes. That’s what grabs people, allows them to instantly identify and empathize with you. So how does that work? And is that something that parents should do when you’re trying to impart information to a teenager?

Lisa: Yes, 100%. I mean, this is true. Think about it in your own life. It’s funny, in the writing world, anybody who knows anything about the writing world here people always go, “Is the character likable?” And that is true. The real world, people go, “Likable.” We tend to think that to make ourselves feel strong and to make ourselves feel like we know what we’re doing, we need to project this notion that we are likable and we are completely competent. And that means we never make mistakes.

Andy: We don’t mess anything up. Yeah.

Lisa: Exactly. What it means is that we have never done anything that in polite society would be deemed, “Uh-oh.” The truth is we all know that that is impossible. We all know that we’ve made mistakes. So when someone starts to talk about something as if they’ve never made a mistake, first of all, we don’t believe them. We don’t believe them. We find them inauthentic. Nobody’s that perfect. To be likable means to be relatable. We have to be able to relate to you. What that means, because that’s another big generic term, story is always unspecific. What does relatable mean? It means vulnerable. It means opening up and showing where you made a mistake, where you did something. Maybe even similar to what this kid did, because stories, here’s what a story is literally about. Again, whether it’s a one sentence, or a tweet, or War and Peace, story is about how something, an unavoidable, external problem forces the protagonist, meaning you if you’re telling the story, to change an internal belief in order to solve that problem. That’s what a story is.

Lisa: A story isn’t about what happens on the outside. It isn’t how suddenly you discovered that you could solve the problem by getting a screwdriver and you needed a Phillips instead of a flathead or whatever, story is about whatever that internal belief is that you had, what I like to call a misbelief that was keeping you from solving whatever that problem is. That’s what stories are about. Again, whether it’s literature or whether we’re telling a story. Now, if you’re telling a story about yourself then stories are literally, stories are how we solve a problem internally, how we change an internal belief in order to solve an external problem. That is what a story is.

Lisa: If you’re telling a story, you yourself aren’t vulnerable. Meaning there’s something that you didn’t know, there’s something that you believed that wasn’t true, then you have no story. You just have a bunch of things that happen, which is again, a mistake that writers make and a mistake that people make when they tell stories. Because I mean being vulnerable means you’re inviting someone in. I mean, story really is, I like to say the difference between what we say out loud and what we’re really thinking when we say it. I mean, I think that’s something, again, no matter which side you are on with the impeachment that just went on, it’s like, “Boy, there were so many people.” I thought, “Boy, I wish I knew what they were really thinking. What are they thinking?”

Lisa: That’s what we want to know because that’s what makes us vulnerable. We are all afraid to say what we really believe. Because if we did, people could make fun of us for. People could think we were stupid, or uninformed, or not like us. We learn in elementary school to close that down. Stories are about opening that up and having the courage to be vulnerable. That’s what pulls people in. I mean that is the heart and soul of the story and why often we don’t get it right when we’re telling people what to do. Because the thing that you’re the most afraid of telling your kid is probably the thing that’s going to make them bond with you and really hear what you’re saying, because you have been through something similar. If you don’t admit how hard it was and what it mattered to you and how you made the mistake, they’re just not going to believe you.

About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is a story coach and the author of Wired for Story, Story Genius, and most recently, Story or Die, her first book for people who want to persuade better. Lisa works with writers, nonprofits, educators and organizations, helping them master the unparalleled power of story, so they can move people to action – whether that action is turning the pages of a compelling novel, or taking to the streets to change the world for the better. Or both!

Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and CourtTV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and she’s on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in visual narrative in New York City.

Her 7 hour video class Wired for Story can be found at CreativeLive.com. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com.

Lisa avoids wearing sweaters by residing in sunny Los Angeles.

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