Creating long-term change through storytelling

Difference-making thought-leader Tamsen Webster is the opening keynote at the ABA Bank Marketing Conference in September.

By Khalil Garriott

As an author, public speaker and messaging strategist, Tamsen Webster helps experts drive action with their ideas. Webster honed her trademark Red Thread approach in and for major organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Harvard Medical School and Intel, as well as with hundreds of individual founders, academics and thought leaders.

“The best way to make big ideas irresistible is to build your audience’s case for those ideas, using their reasoning.” — Tamsen Webster.
Webster will deliver the opening keynote at the 2023 ABA Bank Marketing Conference, Sept. 27-29 in Austin, Texas. She will present on “The Logic of Emotion: How to Make Inaction Impossible.” In this Q&A, Webster previews her keynote session and describes how to make the most powerful case for your ideas.

In two sentences, what is the meaning behind The Red Thread?

The Red Thread is the story we tell ourselves about why things happen the way they do or will. The name comes from the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, where Theseus used a red thread to find his way in and out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

You have been identified as a thinker who is making a real difference in the world. What advice do you have for people who want to make a difference as well?

Making a difference just for difference’s sake isn’t enough; relevance is required. After all, change can only happen when the conditions are right, and the first and most important condition is that the change delivers on something people know they want (even if they don’t know yet that the change you’re making will get them there).

What’s the key to making big ideas irresistible?

The best way to make big ideas irresistible is to build your audience’s case for those ideas, using their reasoning. It’s about reconstructing in someone else’s mind the conditions that created the idea in your own. One of those conditions is the “story” aspect I mentioned earlier. We use the elements of story to make things make sense to ourselves (even though this happens preconsciously most of the time). That means your idea already has a story—the story that made it make sense to you.

When you can reconstruct that Red Thread in someone else’s mind-—from their perspective and in their language—you’re uploading the “code” of your idea straight into their brain’s story processors. Once you’ve done that, you have a story they not only understand, but will act upon. Because it’s a story they not only understand, but believe.

What’s the difference between a rational decision maker and a rationalizing decision maker?

The first one doesn’t actually exist! Humans aren’t anything BUT rationalizing decision makers. Our true decision making is preconscious, and we tell ourselves stories afterward to justify what we do. What that means is that we don’t do things simply because they’re right or rational—though we believe we do. Instead, we convince ourselves that what we do already is right and rational because we’re already doing it.

How do you create that “lightbulb moment” for your audience—content that makes your audience take an action?

It’s not enough to just present the problem-solution logic of your idea to your audience. That only gives the beginning and the end of the story. To get someone to see how they can get that ending, too (or how someone else did), they have to understand why that happened. In all great stories, there’s a moment that determines that “why,” and it’s called the moment of truth. It’s the moment when the main character realizes something about the true nature of their circumstances—something that puts what they want in jeopardy and makes the status quo impossible to ignore.

To create that moment for someone else, you need to put the same story elements in place: something someone wants, a problem they have to solve before they can get what they want and some inarguable truth that makes achieving both of those impossible with the current course of action. At that moment, something called “cognitive dissonance” makes someone choose in that moment—they’ll either decide they don’t want a particular thing after all, or they’ll decide to change something to get it.

If a person is unsure how to start creating content that inspires long-term change, how would you guide them?

I could write a book just on that question! But the two most important principles are these: Change is based on story (the stories we tell ourselves), and those stories are based on beliefs (what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world). That means the best way to start creating content that inspires long-term change is to (a) build a story that (b) is anchored in what people already want and already believe.

The biggest barrier to long-term change is something called “cognitive inertia,” holding onto the beliefs we already have and the stories we already tell ourselves. It’s why trying to get someone to want or believe something new often doesn’t work; the old beliefs and stories are just too strong. But when you build a case for change based on someone’s pre-existing positions, you make cognitive inertia work in your favor. You’re making sure that even the biggest leaps start from solid ground.

Khalil Garriott is VP, creative content and copywriting strategy at ABA.