Blog Post

Hacking the Magical Number Seven With Storytelling

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

number7Our short-term memory is widely believed to have a capacity of seven elements, plus or minus two. This assumption has influenced a number of major decisions — it’s the reason that U.S. phone numbers have seven digits, for example. There are ways to trick your brain into being able to store more than seven (plus or minus two) items, however. One example of a hack around the limit is described in George Miller’s 1956 paper “The Magical Number Seven.

Most people can only reliably differentiate between six tones on an absolute basis (people with perfect pitch, or roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population, can do so among up to 50-60 pitches, according to Miller), so the rest of us use relative pitch to differentiate amongst a wider range of tones.

Another approach is to connect items through a story. Stories serve as one of mankind’s most efficient compression algorithms, allowing people to dramatically exceed the seven-item limit. If you want to show your boss how hard you’ve worked, pack your presentation with data, charts, and bullet points — but if you want to have an impact, tell a story. The same goes for building great products, effective advertising and selling yourself as a candidate for a job.

What We Can Learn From World Memory Champions

How can someone remember the order of a random deck of cards in 25 seconds? That’s what current World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore has done. The previous champion, Andi Bell, can review 10 packs of cards (520 cards) in 20 minutes and then recall the details of every card by position. They both accomplish these memory feats by turning each card into some unrelated mental image and then linking the images together with a story. For more on Bell’s strategy, check out the BBC video embedded below.

While Pridmore and Bell spend endless hours honing their craft, producers (of any type of content) can deliver value to consumers — be they a boss, customer or interviewer — by packaging content in the form of a story.

Applied Storytelling:  The Pitch, the Resume, and the Product

1.  The Pitch.

After spending many years preparing presentations in which I would ask for resources, try to sell an idea or evangelize to existing customers, I now find myself on the receiving end of several pitches on an almost daily basis. Without exception, the most effective presenters tell a story.

Don’t start your presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote — start with a storyboard. Take a sheet of paper or whiteboard, divide it into a few sections with horizontal and vertical lines, and write the storyline at the top of each slide. After you’ve nailed down your narrative, think about the images, videos and supporting examples that you can use to tell your story. If you do presentations with any frequency, buy “Beyond Bullet Points” or “Presentation Zen.” Your presentations will improve dramatically with a little practice.

2.  The Resume.

If you don’t tell a story about your background, the interviewer will invent her own. So think about the story you want to tell about yourself before you craft your resume. You should obviously be honest, but you can craft the text of your resume and your interview pitch in a way that will leave the interviewer with the key points you want to get across rather than just a general impression of you based on what school you went to or how you dress.

And practice telling your story. First to yourself, then to your friends — over and over. No matter how impressive your accomplishments, your audience will have a hard time remembering them if all you do is offer a laundry list of disparate facts.

3.  The Product.

Disneyland is an incredible place, but as I noticed recently, many of the rides are actually very similar to those found in other amusement parks. Yet despite the trek to get there and the crazy long lines, my kids are devout Disneyland fans. The difference is storytelling. The same can be said, albeit more subtlety, for many of the world’s top brands.

Next time you need to convey a complex idea — whether it’s a new product concept to your boss or a new product to a consumer audience — try telling a story. Doing so will help you organize your thoughts while at the same time, making it much more likely that your audience will listen — and remember — what you have to say.

Mike Speiser is a Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures. His thoughts on technology, economics and entrepreneurship will appear at this time every week.

21 Responses to “Hacking the Magical Number Seven With Storytelling”

  1. Excellent post as usual, Mike. When you think about the most famous, successful companies, they all have stories (Yahoo, Google, eBay, AOL) that detail/describe/mythologize their rise to prominence.

    On the product side, stories can be much more specific, relating how a new product or service solves a common problem.

    Great fodder for thinking, especially as I work on my next presentation.. I mean, story-board.

  2. Hi Mike, great post as always. I hope you don’t mind my sharing with your readers the upcoming (next Monday) talk by Charlene Li, author of Groundswell. This is sponsored by HBSANC, an organization I know you support. I’ve heard Charlene speak before, and I think one of the reasons she’s such a compelling speaker is that she’s a great storyteller (how’s that for a tie-in to your post?? ;-)
    Charlene is writing a new book, due out next May, and she’ll be giving a sneak peek at the material at this talk.
    For those in the Bay Area interested in hearing Charlene speak, registration info is available here:

  3. Story telling is important. We gotta be careful about making sure that the product/service is aligned with that story Kinda obvious; but I ‘ve been surprised how often end users/customers have been disappointed because the story got way ahead of what could be delivered. There ain’t enough Steve Jobs out there. :-(

  4. heres a story Mike:
    i spent 3 years alone in a room with several computers hacking education everything internet, put together several schematics, and for the past eight months i have been working ~14 hours a day, 7 days a week building the first prototype… Google suredone. then Google seeking venture capital. i wonder how many people in the world believe it when i say there are several schematics locked in my brain for internet technologies that do not exist?… Before i launch my first of many products?

    great post, and at the very least i hope you are amused by this comment!

    jason nadaf

  5. Very interesting, adds a fresh flavor to the usual mix of articles here! Story-telling seems to be ingrained in human psyche as it is (and seems to have always been) practiced in every culture. We all seem to have learnt it effortlessly even as very small kids (specially to wriggle out of tight situations) and loved nothing more than reading and listening to stories. Another method to bolster short-term memory practiced by the yoga masters of yore (folklore?) is deliberate application of intense attention (concentration). I have no means of verifying this belief but they are said to have been able to repeat verbatim long passages recited in foreign languages.

  6. Good article, Mike. Stories are what we use constantly in the User Experience process as well. In addition to the points you make, they also serve to ensure you hit Pareto’s Principle in keeping the main focus of a product on what users are mostly likely to want to do. Stories tend to flush out the edge cases pretty quickly.

  7. Memory techniques like these flourished in the Middle Ages (and earlier) before the printing press. For an interesting history of the first westerner to learn Chinese see Spence’s *The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci*. There are lots of great lessons for entrepreneurs in Ricci’s story.

  8. It is good to see people talking about storytelling. This is what can make or break how branding of a message takes hold in a market place. Having run a public global technology company telling our story about our skills and how we applied them made a major difference in our success. With the advent of affordable video it is no different than making a film or commercial. Short clear and compelling.
    Dave Toole, MediaMobz