How we layer stories to communicate ideas

I’ve been looking forward to watching Good Omens for months. Not only is it by two of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, but it stars many of my favourite actors including the brilliant Michael Sheen and David Tennant. 

Now I have a confession: I have never read Good Omens. As it’s half-term week, I chose to take the book with me in the hope of reading it before I watched the show. It is brilliantly written and laugh out loud funny. It also draws on lots of other stories.

If you haven’t read or watched Good Omens, a quick, spoiler-free synopsis: the world is about to end and an angel and a demon join forces to try to stop it happening. 

Just the premise relies on you knowing that there is a Biblical story about the end of the world, that the armies will assemble at Armageddon for the battle of the end times. 

My husband's copy of Good Omens

Before you reach the end of the second paragraph of the preface, you need to know that God made the world in 7 days, what the Garden of Eden is, and that the British always talk about the weather.

You also need to know the story of Adam and Eve to fill in the back story to the opening scene for yourself.

I love that the preface also ends with “a dark and stormy night“, which regular readers of my blog will know is the start of many of a good story.

We layer up stories. We might not even realise we’re doing it but our brains draw on stories to understand ideas all the time. Some of these stories are based on our experience, some are shared culturally, some are stories we’ve heard from family and friends. 

For example, we talk about the Sword of Damocles when saying someone in power is in peril, similarly we talk of the Ides of March. In the Bible, Jesus famously used stories to explain concepts from the Good Samaritan to the Prodigal Son. Bible stories were used in stained glass windows in churches so the congregation, who couldn’t read, could follow the story and understand the underlying message. 

If you grew up reading Roald Dahl you will know the perils of too much TV, being greedy, spoilt or obnoxious from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. 

In the UK we often refer to ‘here’s one I made earlier’ for a ready-made example, taken from the children’s show Blue Peter. 

We use stories as examples. Our brains are looking for things they can compare a situation with. Referring back to a previous occurrence, from a weather event to an election is a popular way of judging how out of the ordinary something is. 

We carry stories in the names we give each other and the places we live. Names convey meanings which reference events or landmarks often from ages past. 

When you’re trying to explain a new concept to somebody, it’s helpful to think of a familiar story they can use to reference what you’re talking about. This could be one you know from your industry, background or a story they want to tell about a problem they are having.

Rachel Extance (photo by Jemima Willcox)

Rachel Extance helps business tell their stories so they can reach a wider audience for their work and ideas. A professional journalist, she knows how to write stories people find relevant and engaging. If you would like help to get your message across, need someone who can write articles for you regularly, or you would like actionable ideas for how to tell more people about what you do, get in touch by emailing rachel@extance.co.uk or contact her on social media.

1 thought on “How we layer stories to communicate ideas”

  1. Rachel, these examples are really helpful and I certainly agree with you on the power of stories in communication. As your article concludes, I found myself with a few questions. How do you identify a good story to help communicate a new concept? Are there ways to know if you’ve identified a winner? How does the idea of layering fit with this? What’s the best way to layer stories? As someone whose never thought about layering, what considerations might I think about as I begin? Thanks for sharing these ideas.

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