The room was packed with the who’s-who — and somehow I’m in the panel on stage. The mic was passed to me. Not knowing how to begin, I just told my story. Not far along I started receiving smiles, nods, and laughter from the audience. From that point on I knew I had an audience that could relate to my story.

(Here’s a secret for those of you that don’t know me — I’ve never been great at telling stories.)

It’s amazing how effective a story is at communicating — despite the fact that everyone’s story is different. There is something inherent about a personal story we’re hard-wired to accept. Which is why it’s shocking to me how often in academic circles we forget this powerful tool.

One of the lab members asks — “When we were talking about fellowships yesterday you used the term ‘Psychological Armwrestling’ within the context of essay drafting. What is Psychological Armwrestling? You used it with a negative connotation. Is it ever appropriate to Psychologically Armwrestle someone?”

I made ‘Psychological Armwrestling’ up likely from my experience with Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I would define it as a deliberate and rational attempt to psychologically corner or box someone into accepting a point of view or opinion via explicit presentation of rational arguments. On the social thermodynamics empathy pyramid Psychological Armwrestling works primarily with rational empathy. The reality is though that you can’t force someone to believe anything within the legal norms of our society. As Dale Carnegie put it, “You can’t win an argument.” And unless someone is within your sphere of influence — work or social group of some kind — the more you try to force a notion onto someone the more they are likely to resist. The reason and source of this resistance is the real interesting part.

If I put on my professor hat and was placed in front of a room of students to talk about a topic I’m the expert in, say thermodynamics or cryogenic hydrogen — I could get away with all of the psychological armwrestling I wanted to as long as I remained rational and didn’t violate one of your core values and beliefs — which isn’t too challenging because you likely haven’t constructed much core knowledge on those topics. I’m the expert in a position of power and authority to do the armwrestling and psychological boundary construction — it’s appropriate, expected, efficient, and one of the reasons you are paying to be here. Let’s get busy!

Now go back to your essay proposing why you should receive a fellowship. Are you in any kind of position of credible authority to psychologically armwrestle the reviewer? Who is the reviewer? Likely a professional at NASA, the NSF, or some other organization with many years of experience in the field you are looking to enter. Imagine this as the case of a student in a big classroom trying to wrestle control and authority over a class from the faculty member. How’s that going to work? You often create a situation where the person in power or control has to legitimize their authority role, and years worth of experience, by what is sadly culturally referred to as “putting you in your place.” — Not the most efficient or effective way of winning a fellowship, friends, or influencing people. Yet some psychological armwrestling is required to establish your credibility and capability — so what’s the trick?

Go one level up the empathy pyramid to Cognitive (a.k.a. tactical) Empathy — setting the stage, or hook, for an eventual outcome in such a subtle and fun way that people don’t even realize what’s happening. Some example opening ‘hook’ sentences developed by our group over the years:

“In my fifth grade science class I went to Mars.” — the start to an essay describing an interest in spaceflight.

“I struck a match and held it to the specimen.” — the start to an essay on sustainable fuel.

“As we drifted into the current, the water was suddenly so cold, so fast, that I screamed and fell into the boat.” — the start to an essay on thermal waste heat scavenging from hydro-electric dams.

“When I was eight years old, my older brother told me that aliens delivered me as an egg in the field next to my parents house.” — the start to a personal statement on spaceflight.

“I threw the switch, and to my amazement, the indicator jumped three times farther than expected.” — the start to any essay presenting a novel new experimental finding.

These opening hook sentences tend to win fellowships for a couple of reasons:

  1. Unexpected/unconventional — the vast majority of essays I’ve read tend to start with “I’ve always wanted to…”
  2. Original — many steal some other quote or slogan “Gradatim Ferociter” — anybody can do this.
  3. Disarming — who’s going to argue with your story? No reviewer is going to say, “nope they’re not telling it right.”
  4. Inviting — sets the stage for a relevant and interesting story/journey/adventure. Says to the reviewer — this story will be worth your time.

This approach borrows many cues from Andrew Stanton’s TED talk, “The clues to a great story“.

Once you’ve set the stage and started the journey through the story in a way that’s at all relate-able, you’ve hooked the reviewer/audience. They’ll grant you a few forays into rational psychological armwrestling, provided the relevance, credibility, and efficiency of your story is preserved — and you need some rationality in a technical discipline. You also need some emotion, passion, and drive. You also need some simple understanding of the reviewer’s needs. The more levels of the empathy pyramid you naturally engage, the more likely that reviewer, whom you’ve likely never met before, will feel like they understand you, want to hear more, and help you.

Telling your project’s story should be a natural outcome of the design process. For most beginners it’s not. That’s both a problem with our current educational system and an opportunity.

Five years ago I told students that if it’s not written down it never happened. A year ago I told them that if it’s not written on-line it never happened. Now I tell them that if it’s not written on-line in real time they are both showing up late to the discussion and missing opportunities for collaboration along the way. I have no idea what I will tell them next year.

It’s no shocker that engineers struggle with communication. We give them a cop out early on by stereotyping the field as non-empathetic introverts. However the reality is that the engineering design process closely mirrors the process for telling an effective story or pitch and when accomplished with maximum efficacy is highly empathetic. Take a story telling process and see how it fits with the following:

1) Introduction/Motivation/Problem statement: Why do we care and how is this relevant?

2) Background/Literature review/Prior work: Why is this a persistent problem and why hasn’t it been solved?

3) Theory/Specification/Process: This is how we will determine and justify if we are successful or not.

4) Application/Ideation/Development: What we did.

5) Testing results/Summary/Conclusion: What we found and how well we addressed/solved #1.

Those are, more or less, the chapter headings of my Ph.D. dissertation. At first glance this looks like a linear flow diagram. It is for some but is not necessarily linear. The best make it a highly paralleled process directly coupled and communicated in real-time with the client/customer. Example: We tried x at first and it didn’t work, we were also working on y at the same time which did work out and allowed us to finish on time. Our presentations need not be different.

Why do we always present things in a linear progression of slides? The best engineering is highly paralleled and the stories we tell about those projects should mirror that development process.

In the end, it really is amazing that despite how different all of our stories are, stories are incredibly instrumental at helping us find ways to relate, connect, and plan ahead — perhaps because our own stories are always changing. Regardless, when it’s time to get your communications to really work, unleash the power of story.

(Note that this post was originally and totally psychological armwrestling. The way the question was presented, and the fact that I’ve written the majority of a book on a topic related to this, made it seem appropriate. It’s the default for us academics. I had to go back and write the fun opener for a general audience just to avoid hypocrisy.)