Better Storytelling and Positive Deviancy

Tags: books writing

I mark passages in books while I read, and then I return to the books later and copy the marked passages into my personal notes.

Among other interesting snippets, I marked and starred four whole pages in Atul Gawande’s Better. I think that people who highlight entire pages just don’t quite understand the concept of highlighting, so my left eyebrow instinctively rose while I attempted to figure out what the hell I was thinking when I marked such a large passage.

It talks about the difference between 99.5% and 99.95% health rates, and I’m already very familiar with that difference since they come up in service level agreements all the time, but this passage doesn’t recite facts. It tells the story of 99.5% versus 99.95% with a fantastic narrative that left me with a little lump in my stomach, and those four pages are enough for me to recommend the whole book, but you can read that excerpt right now thanks to NPR.

Atul could replace those four pages with a brief exposition of facts: the difference between being 99.5% and 99.95% successful with a treatment regimen sums up to a 16% chance or 83% of making it through a year without complications. Instead he tells a story in four pages that made me stop, think, and mutter “damn.”

And the impact of a good story isn’t just a momentary pause. Stories help us retain information. That’s why I thought of Shlemiel the Painter while full grown adults bickered about string encoding in C today. Joel Spolsky wrote Back to Basics in 2001, and I still remember the story of Shlemiel.

Street Lines

Learning to clean toilets even makes a great story when Joel tells the tale.

Returning to Better before I close out this post, I want to share two paragraphs from the Afterword (Becoming a Positive Deviant)

Wherever doctors gather - in meeting rooms, in conference halls, in hospital cafeterias - the natural pull of conversational gravity is toward the litany of woes all around us.

But resist it. It’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything, and it will get you down. You don’t have to be sunny about everything. Just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem you came across — even the weather if that’s all you’ve got. See if you can keep the conversation going.