Learning from the Danube: The Role of Stories, Purpose and Information in Decisions

by | Sep 27, 2015

DanubeOnce upon a time, we sat together on our piano bench listening to a recording of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The music floated along – pretty, but unremarkable to my school-girl ears. My dad, a school band director, explained to me that the music represented the Danube River in Europe. He pulled out a worn volume of the encyclopedia Britannica and found a map showing the Danube cutting through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (at that time) and more. The far-away places seemed exotic and the music more interesting. Something clicked in my brain. Strauss was writing about a real place. “Someday, maybe I will see those places,” I thought to myself.

Fast forward 40+ years. My husband and I are in Vienna, Austria and planning a day-trip to Bratislava. We have two choices: travel by bus or by boat. The bus was cheaper and faster which made the decision obvious. However, the boat ride was along the Danube. Ahhh….now music played in my head; my dad was telling me about the waltz; and my love of new travel experiences kicked in. We took the boat.

Bus versus boat was a small, low-risk decision – but still a decision. The dynamic that played out in this decision also plays out in bigger decisions. Like the three beats in a waltz, three factors, story, purpose and information, dance together in the decision-making process. Let’s look at each and how you can apply them for decision-making.

Information: We collected the information we needed for our travel decision. The boat was three times more expensive than the bus and took 20 minutes longer. Both had convenient departure locations. That was the basic information we needed.

Now consider a decision you face. What information do you need and what can you get within the timeframe available? This is likely the easiest part of the decision-making process. Facts, logic and rational thought are necessary for sound decision-making. Gather up all the relevant information that is reasonably possible. Factual information connects in the newest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This is where the executive control function resides that integrates information for decision-making. The language comprehension center is also activated. And that’s about it. Notice that factual information is heady and sterile.

Some decisions can appropriately be made with facts alone; however, as humans, there are likely to be other motivators. In our case, the boat trip was not the most practical or economical decision but the decision derived from its connection to story and purpose. So many times we try to make decisions only based on the facts and we disregard the power of feelings in decision-making. Don’t get me wrong, the facts are essential, but we lose effectiveness when that’s the only thing we consider.

Story: From the moment we learned there was an option to travel along the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava, I thought of my dad and the music. I remembered how he taught me to listen for the slight hesitation after the downbeat before the ba-ba of the waltz. My brain sent a cascade of good feelings. Why is that?

The brain is designed to connect with stories. We make a mistake if we believe that a decision will be made by fact alone. Far better to recognize the power of a story that is activated in your brain. Consider the research behind stories and the brain. Whereas facts activate a couple of brain regions, stories activate up to seven areas in the brain, depending on the nature of the story. These areas might include movement, scent, touch, language, sound, colors and shapes. The Danube memory activated movement, language, sound, and color (blue) at a minimum. Stories, particularly those with multiple dimensions capture the attention of the brain and they are more easily remembered than straight facts.

Test it out yourself. The chances are good that you can recall the backstory about someone or a situation more easily that that statistics. Perhaps you know your boss is an amateur photographer because of a story she shared about photographing her kid’s soccer match. You are more likely to remember this tidbit because of the story. The story connects your boss with you. Maybe you have kids or played soccer or like photography. The story brings up images of soccer fields, the smell of grass, the feel of sun and the joy of kids at play. Stories are more memorable.

Research indicates that people accept ideas more readily when in story mode than in fact mode. Stories captivate the listener (or reader), connect at an emotional level, and transport you across the narrative. Consider a 2007 study by Vanderbilt researcher, Jennifer Edson Escalas, who found that people responded more positively to advertisements in story form than in straightforward fact form. Additionally, if the listener/reader is familiar with or relates to the story, they feel connected and more inclined toward empathy. Connection has been shown to activate the reward center in the brain, which promotes good feeling. Many of us are more inclined toward a decision that feels good than one that feels bad.

When I worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation, we had a significant project that needed a decision from the Secretary. Before the briefing, those who knew him best told me, “Just tell him a story.” We did. We told a story about transportation safety, the number of people killed each year, and opportunity technology held to save lives. We backed the story up with facts and analysis but we led with the story.

Purpose: My dad frequently told me stories about foreign lands. He captivated my imagination and instilled a desire for new and different experiences which became part of my value system. Never having seen the Danube, the opportunity to boat down it resonated with an important part of my life.

It’s not just me. In interviews with leaders, most expressed the important role their value system plays in decision-making. People instinctually resonate with decisions in sync with the values, principles or purpose that make them tick. It’s what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” For the Secretary, safety was a major initiative for his administration and, more importantly, a topic he cared personally about. It was part of his purpose. Our project connected with the stated strategic plan for the Department and it connected to his personal motivator.

As you consider your next big decision why do you care about the decision? What makes you interested in the issue? What gets you excited about the decision? Keep asking “why” until you sense where it links up with your values. That’s when you find a key motivator behind the decision. If you must persuade a decision-maker, ask yourself why they care? How can you connect the decision with a core motivator for them? If you don’t know what motivates them, ask around and see what you uncover.

The next time you face a decision, don’t stop with information alone. Facts are rarely sufficient by themselves. Consider the dance between information, story and purpose. Notice the senses that activate in your brain from stories behind the decision. Take time to understand how the decision connects with your purpose.
Information, story and purpose flow together at the moment of decision just like the three beats in the Blue Danube Waltz.


ii.Hsu, Jeremy, The Secrets of Storytelling, Scientific American, August/September 2008.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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