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Story Knows No Gender

May 10, 2010

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Thaler's other posts in this series can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Gender_differences At both my recent communication and story seminar in New York City and at the Smithsonian Institution Conference on Organizational Storytelling, my partner Svend-Erik Engh and I were asked the question, "Should you tell a story differently based on whether your listener is a woman or man?"

Svend-Erik believes that women like more detail in their stories. In support of his claim, a participant said she "flowers it up" when speaking with women. And a thoroughly unscientific poll of friends and colleagues seems to indicate that women share more stories, especially personal stories, with other women. (The most frequently cited reason for women refraining from sharing personal stories with men was a fear of appearing to be sexually flirtatious.)

There are many books and articles on gender differences in communication styles and they tend to focus on the different ways in which women and men deliver information. Most of these observed differences can be attributed to societal and cultural influences, as well as stereotypical expectations. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics and author of the seminal book on gender communication differences You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, boils down the observed differences to "hierarchy and connection": men seek status in conversation while women seek acceptance.

There are also a number of books and articles on the differences in cognition between women and men, many of which cite research showing slight differences in the brain structure of women and men. At the same time, scientific findings on gender differences in the way adults process language are disparate and inconsistent.

I’m not that interested in behavioral patterns; I’m interested in whether stories, in order to be effective (as in eliciting a desired emotion and action in your listener), should be told differently to men and women. In other words, do women and men process the same verbal communication in different ways, resulting in different outcomes?

I have yet to uncover any scientific evidence that this is the case or that would require you to alter the way you share stories based on the gender of your listener.

In fact, the assumptions that have been drawn about gender differences in language processing seem to underscore the importance of story as a communication tool, regardless of gender.

Take, for example the contention that

"Men seem to have some advantage in certain spatial skills"...helping "us to understand why a little girl will want to TELL you about something she is excited about, whereas some boys may prefer to SHOW you what they are excited about."

[Given] the "unmistakable male advantage i[n] spatio-temporal tasks...[i]f you want your daughter to learn the skills involved with computer games, you might begin by selecting games which involve strategies rather than quick reactions...."

As I've written in previous posts, stories are the next best thing to actual experience. They enable your listener to fully imagine a situation and the characters within it, and they help to clarify values and complexity. This is why narrative artists are taught "to show, not tell."

Broadly speaking, men will respond favorably to being shown examples and experiences through story; women will delight in hearing a story that provides details and offers emotional connection. Men will also delight in the "map-making" elements of story -- the establishment of a clear time, place, and journey through conflict and resolution -- while women are more likely to comprehend complexity and data when presented through narrative.

Of course, your listener brings his or her own experiences to any story you choose to share. Your goal is to be as strategic as possible when considering which of those experiences to elicit so as to engage your listener and move them to a desired action. Remember John Steinbeck’s advice: "The strange and foreign is not interesting -- only the deeply personal and familiar."

Indeed, while your listener’s gender may be a consideration as you think about the stories you choose to share, the sex of your listener need not determine the way in which you share those stories. Here are some simple story-sharing tips you may find helpful, regardless of whether your listener is female or male:

  1. Tell your story simply, and make sure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Aim to share a story that your listener, in turn, will wish to share with others.
  2. Quickly establish the who, what, where, and when of your story. Firmly plant your protagonist in time and space. For example, "In the summer of 1997, in a small village in Senegal, the local cleric Diawara was participating in an educational workshop...." Or, "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."
  3. Provide sensory details -- smells, tastes, textures, and sounds -- to further engage your listener.

There is broad consensus that story is an effective communication tool for engagement, establishing trust, and moving your listener to take action. Your use of story as a persuasive communication tool, and the process of hearing and responding to that story on the part of your listener, is unlikely to be affected by gender. In the final analysis, the story itself is the thing.

-- Thaler Pekar


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Hello Thaler, you state that "Indeed, while your listener’s gender may be a consideration as you think about the stories you choose to share, the sex of your listener need not determine the way in which you share those stories." There is significant research on how men and women communicate and process information differently. In the book Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, Barbara and Allan Pease quote an interesting study. This study, conducted in five Western countries, asked men and women to describe the kind of person they would ideally like to be. Men overwhelmingly chose adjectives such as bold, competitive, capable, dominant, assertive, admired, and practical. From the same list women chose warm, loving, generous, sympathetic, attractive, friendly, and giving.

If story is a means of building business relationships and ultimately impacting a desired outcome of a business goal then perhaps modifying the content/style of the story to meet the gender may be more effective.

I look forward to hearing more comments on this very interesting subject.

Thank you for commenting, Mary. Communications content should always be listener-specific. Strategically, my advice is to think of what you would like your listener to do as a result of your communication; how might they need to feel in order to take that action; might story be a tool to elicit that emotion? To date, I have not found scientific proof that the way in which that content is then neurologically processed differs by the sex of the listener.

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