How Words Change Minds: The Science of Storytelling by Nat Kendall-Taylor at TEDxMidAtlanticSalon (Transcript)

Nat Kendall-Taylor

Here is the full transcript of Nat Kendall-Taylor’s TEDx Talk on How Words Change Minds: The Science of Storytelling at TEDxMidAtlanticSalon conference.


I want to start with a warning today. I realize that beginning with a warning may not be the smartest thing to do, but I’m just going to go for it.

My warning is that although I’m here to talk to you about communications, I actually have zero training in communications, and I’ve never worked in PR. What I am is a psychological anthropologist. And what I study is the way that culture influences how we think, how we process information, how we make meaning of messages, and how we formulate and come to decisions.

And so, as a psychological anthropologist, one of my goals here today is to convince you, is to show you, that this is not true. That we should not be actively dissuading our friends and colleagues from going into anthropology, and that instead, studying culture and how people use it to think is an incredibly valuable tool in the real world, and for our purposes today, can be an incredibly important and effective thing in being a better communicator.

And so, as an anthropologist working in communications, I study two different things. First of all, I study public thinking, not public opinion, not the way that people answer a couple of polling questions here or there, or conduct themselves in a few focus groups in Cleveland or Kansas City – I’m from Cleveland, I can make that joke, that’s okay – but rather how people use culture in a deep and highly predictable way to think about complex social issues; issues like education or mental health, immigration or aging, climate change or race inequity.

So I am really excited to talk to you about how culture helps us be more effective communicators. The other thing that I’m going to talk to you about is how through the way that we present information we can get people to open up an access dramatically different ways of thinking, of feeling, and of acting about those social issues, and in a nutshell, that is what framing is: how variations in the way that we present information can lead people to dramatically different perceptual and behavioral outcomes.

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And so I’m really, really – why not? – really excited to get the chance to geek out about framing today. And I’ll tell you right from the beginning that geeking out about framing is pretty much my all-time, absolute favorite thing to do, which I realize is kind of pathetic, and probably a little bit sad. But it does mean that at least one person in this room is going to have fun during this talk. That will be me, I will have fun. And so, what I want to do today is to convince you, is to argue that even though you do not think of yourselves all the time in this way and are not explicitly aware of it, you are all communicators.

And as communicators, framing matters a great deal to you. So what I want to do is give you two reasons why framing matters to you. And the first reason is, unfortunately, I’m in the position where I have to tell you that you all have a problem. And you should know there aren’t 11 more steps after this, it’s not that kind of a meeting, and it’s not that kind of a problem. What I mean is that you have a communications problem.

You have a problem of perception. And the problem looks something like this: That you all have been in positions, at one time or another, where you think you have the most perfect, awesome, slam-dunk – whatever sports metaphor you want to use – way of talking about what you do and why it matters. Heck, it works with two of your closest colleagues, what could go wrong when it goes out to normal people, people who don’t eat and breathe and sleep your issues all the time? And you find that when this idea that made so much sense to you goes outside of your immediate circle, it does one of two things. First of all, it lacks resonance. It doesn’t have grip, it goes in one ear and out the other.

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Secondly, probably more unfortunately because it happens more frequently, that thing which worked and was so brilliant in your own head goes out, and it has the exact opposite effect on the people you’re trying to persuade, on the people you’re trying to communicate with. And I’m not going to ask you to take my word for anything today, right? I’m going to show you evidence from the research that I do with my team that shows this. And I have a lot of pieces of examples, evidence of this you-say-they-think, this lost-in-translation effect. I’m going to show you one today that comes from some work that we’ve done to translate the science of early childhood development. People who are in this field, people who are developmental scientists, really want to talk about adversity and stress, and the effects that stress and adversity can have on young kids.

And they say things like this: that persistent stress can derail development and have negative long-term effects on health and well-being. And if you’re a developmental scientist, you replace negative with deleterious because that’s the way you talk. And so for folks who are in this field, this is true. There is an incredibly deep body of science across a number of disciplines which supports this point. Unfortunately, when you take this idea out, to normal people, to members of the general public, you get things that look and sound like this:

(Video) “Man: Life’s hard. Supposed to be hard. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you know? All the bad cliches you can think of. There’s been people that have come from absolutely nothing to make it, and in society’s eyes gained success”.

So just to make it really crystal-clear, that which you just heard was not the intended effect when this expert opened his or her mouth to deliver this message. I’m not trying to say that our friend Nietzsche here with “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – smart audience, there you go – is wrong or stupid in any way.

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But there’s clearly something that’s going on here, there’s clearly a difference between the intention and the delivery of the message, and it’s actual perception and effect. And you all should have a good idea as to what that is, based on how I introduced myself as an anthropologist. So the thing that stands between the you-say and the they-think here is culture. Not the external, Indiana Jones artifact kind of culture, but rather culture in mind, culture as a set of shared patterns of thinking, as a set of shared assumptions and propositions that we have and carry around with us in our minds, and use every time that we are presented with information, every time that we engage with an issue.

And so, what this does, this realization that culture is always mediating our meaning and complicating our job as communicators, is it gives us – so this is both, kind of one of these paradoxical things that’s both utterly common sense, and completely game-changing – is that this gives us a really different way of looking at what has been the dominant way of thinking about public understanding and communication.

So for a long time, and still too this day, people have thought of public understanding in this way: as an empty receptacle, as a blank slate, as an empty fishbowl, and have thought that we as communicators can assume that we are our audiences, and take the things that make so much sense to us, and literally drop them into this unfettered space where they get to do their thing. And we know, based on what I’ve just told you about culture, that this is neither correct, nor is it productive as a way to think about communications.

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