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The blogs are running rampant with self improvement lists. They often begin their titles with a number and sound like: 12 Keys to Building Trust, 7 Actions to Make Your Self Happier, 8 Principles of Success, and 11 Must Follow Rules for Building Wealth. They are often short reads with punch that hold your attention. But the question to ask is, Do they have much value? When you become aware of how people learn and how real life changes are made there is a strong case that these lists amount to fluff.
Certainly these articles have value for social book marking sites that help promote the material and can generate money for the writer. Bloggers and writers on the internet are encouraged write and market their articles in this fashion because they grab people’s attention. These list formats also seem effective in getting their material propelled to the top of social book marking sites. It turns out to be good marketing promotion and possibly a revenue generator for the writer, but also a disservice to their readers.
How Do You Learn?
We don’t learn much from lists. If you have read one or more of these articles, then how many items from that important principles of life list do you remember? What struck you so deeply about that paragraph that you integrated that idea into your life?
A list, even with a short paragraph of explanation, is a data point of information. One of thousands we generate or consider each day. The mind has difficulty remembering those data points unless they are meaningful. Without a context that relates to something meaningful in your life that list item floats away. Of the tens of thousands of thoughts we consider in a day a list has little or no impact. That data point of information becomes lost in the noise.
Now consider this. If the reader devotes ten minutes of time to read the article that’s 10 minutes of value. If the list has 10 items that are important then the reader has to divide his attention between 10 different ideas. The writer has just reduced the value of each one of his ideas by one tenth. When the reader divides their attention between 10 different important points, the impact of any one of those points has lost 90% of its impact. If the writer has really done their research and compiled a list of 20 Important…_____ for Success, then each one of those items can only get 5% of a person’s attention.
When an item only gets 5 or 10 percent of a person’s attention, it’s not likely that it will be very impactful to them. They will soon forget all of what is on that list. We remember things that are meaningful. Things are meaningful when they apply to our life, or fit into the context of other things we know or find important. Reading lists, no matter how well written, don’t do that for us.
Metaphors can give context
Imagine that you are sitting at your desk and a good friend hands you a few nuts and bolts. She doesn’t tell you why. She just walks away. You know this is strange because this friend doesn’t normally do things like that. You don’t know what these nuts and bolts have to do with you so you get rid of them. You’ll spend more time wondering about your friend’s odd behavior than the bolts.
Now imagine that when she hands you the nuts and bolts she tells you, “I found these on the ground in the garage where you park your car.”
With those words she is telling you the story of how the nuts and bolts relate to you in a meaningful way. The nuts and bolts that you were going to throw away now have context. They are no longer loose bits of unrelated matter. They connect to your physical safety and well being.
Those articles about 8 life principles, 11 ways to make your self happy or 33 ways to be healthier are usually written in an informational or academic way. They aren’t presented with a real connection to a person’s life. Without that context a person isn’t likely to remember the data points through the weekend. If you can’t remember an item from the list 4 days from now did it really do you any good?
In effect the writer has provided temporary information but hasn’t added any value to the reader. The writer has held the reader’s attention with their clever writing but not delivered much in the way of value to the reader.
A writer delivers real value when their readers become connected to the information in a way that they become motivated to take action. Contextual meaning to a person’s life is one way mechanism that can lead to action. It is only through action that we make meaningful changes in our life.
Stories give context and relevance
The sentence, “I found these underneath your car” is the story that paints a picture. In that picture you can see how the different elements fit together and you are part of the picture. This story, even though it is one sentence, connects those nuts and bolts to your physical safety. The value of stories is that they give context and relationship to those individual data points.
To help understand the importance of stories in our conscious and unconscious decision making process I suggest reading Sources of Power and The Power of Intuition by Gary Klein. He has done an amazing amount of research in how we use stories in our mind to formulate decisions.
We Remember Stories
Cultures pass down history through stories. We remember stories but we don’t remember lists. We can remember stories for years. Great spiritual teachings have passed down through generations with stories.
Moses had to write the Ten Commandments down in stone so that they could be referred back to. He couldn’t trust his people to remember them. However people still tell the stories of his day because those are remembered.
Your “Top Ten Reasons to…” article might make the front page of Digg, but that doesn’t mean that it will have any lasting value to the reader. It might be good that it is written down so that people can continue to refer to it. However if they have to continually refer to it, then they haven’t integrated the principle into their life very effectively. This is to say that they haven’t incorporated it into their actions and behavior.
Emotions Drive Change
People’s behaviors are driven more out of emotions than intellectual data points. If we want to change our behavior or actions it is much more effective to do it through the power of emotions? There are a few exceptions to this, but these are the exceptions. What you are likely to find about the exceptions is that they apply to situations where people have already moved through their emotional attachment and resistance issues. Lists rarely touch people’s emotions or their emotional attachments.
A story as an example
Have you ever tried to persuade a smoker to give up their cigarettes? Have you ever talked an alcoholic out of drinking? You can talk to them about their health, cite statistics on lung cancer and liver disease with no change. If 10 good health reasons don’t get them to change a behavior then telling them 100 good reasons will just make them angry.
Why do they get angry when you share your facts figures and intelligent reasoning? They want you to stop bothering them. Getting angry at you is a way to change your behavior towards them. Couldn’t they just tell you to stop pestering them with reasons? Yes, but it’s not as effective as the emotion of anger.
First of all let’s consider that your behavior towards them has an emotional basis. Your reasoning with them is likely due to your emotional attachment to their health. Your emotional attachment is compelling you to provide them with a list of reasons to stop.
If they simply asked you to stop, you might keep giving them your reasons because you “FELT” it was important. Your emotional agenda was more powerful than their logic. To overcome your emotional agenda they use more powerful emotions. They use anger to get your behavior to change.
If they get angry enough you might become afraid. When your fear is greater than your emotional attachment to changing them you’ll shut up and back away. All your reasons to persuade them got trumped instantly with one emotion. That emotion instantly changed your behavior. Your behavior change is emotionally motivated.
More interesting is that after the emotional change happens, the mind then comes up with good reasons for the change. Very often justifications come after the fact.
Emotions are more persuasive than information
If a writer wants to affect change in people then he will have to affect their emotions. Information is not enough. The longer your list the more you engage the readers intellect in a way that disconnects them from their emotions.
And if the reader is really interested in making changes to improve themselves they might be better served by reading fewer lists. Making changes in your life will require good principles and reasoning, but those principles will have to be paid more than a passing glance of a paragraph. They will also have to be coupled with good emotional connections and motivations.
Without that emotional motivation there is no new action or behavior change and therefore no real benefit. Change doesn’t have to happen through emotions, but it often does. Big life changes usually involve a great deal of emotion. Small life changes usually involve a small amount of emotion. Why are the emotions so important? You have to break the emotional attachments that hold the resistance to change. You also have to create new emotional connections for behaviors to stick. For more understanding the importance of emotions in making behavior changes read the article in Breaking Emotional Eating Habits.
How we really learn and change
People’s behavior is driven more by emotions than by information. The information that does motivate them does so because it affects them emotionally. It connects to them in a way that is meaningful to their lives. This is more likely to be done through story than through lists and principles.
If you are writing or sharing with the intent to improve peoples lives then I suggest you include some relevant context to the points you are making. You will probably also want to impact people at an emotional level. Stories that touch upon people’s emotions are just one way to do that. Spiritual masters knew this. That’s why they often placed their teachings within stories or parables. They provide context that help connect those images to our life so we could draw upon them later. Those stories are also remembered long after items on the list are forgotten.