Immersed in a story

The old-timers say this railroad died years ago. If so, with a crumbling station platform and remains of what used to be moldering away in the weeds Sycamore could be the cemetery where it is buried. Steam once thundered over these rails with Mohawks and J3as screaming west. The formerly well-groomed tracks are now rusty, weed encrusted and tired.

 Across Mill Street, the junction turnout, where 2-8-2 Mikados gracefully meandered towards one-time connections with the B&O and Nickel Plate, now sits silent in the cold, feeble overcast light that illuminates the landscape. Except for the dry rustle of wind in the trees and the drone of traffic on Canal Road, nothing makes a sound.

A pair of lone freight cars sit in the skeleton of a yard at Sycamore

A pair of lone freight cars sit in the skeleton of a yard at Sycamore.

 A couple of freight cars sit idly in the skeleton of a yard to the east. Looking west past the abandoned mill, the tracks disappear under frost-killed weeds. Sycamore, once teaming with activity, now lingers in the shadow of former glories. There’s talk of a comeback, something about a new operator taking over. But, who knows? It’d be nice to roll away the stony gloom and breathe new life into the place again. Shortly a limousine pulls off of Canal Road onto Mill Street and parks in the empty lot near the crossing.*

Tell me a story and make it stick

In their book Made To Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath present the idea that stories are more than interesting tales we tell to children. They are in fact, learning tools for people of all ages. Consider the “shop talk” at work. What’s really going on is a learning experience for the participants. Through a story about some situation on the job, the teller is passing on his experience in solving a problem or dealing with a customer or co-worker. If the story is told in a compelling manner, with concrete details and has a surprise twist or two then it becomes more easily remembered. The listeners can use this info when they encounter a similar situation in the course of their work.

The real theme of the book is how to make your ideas more memorable or “sticky.” They posit that a memorable idea is simple to express, has an unexpected quality, uses concrete language and examples, is credible (believable), has an emotional quality that might appeal to the listener’s self-interest and uses a story.

My story might be compelling on some level. It was certainly simple (the railroad is on its last legs). It had concrete descriptions (crumbling platform and a feeble overcast light) and it’s emotional (well depressing actually), The limousine pulling up adds an unexpected twist, but is it credible? Well, I might have stumbled on two counts, but four out of six isn’t bad though.

What do stories have to do with the hobby?

Nothing (got ya!). At least on the surface, that’s how it seems. In actuality, stories contribute a lot to the hobby. Like any shop talk, the stories we tell each other about our layouts, modeling projects contribute to the learning for all who hear them. A good story is worth more than an hour of dry explanation in helping others understand our layout and what we’re trying to accomplish with the hobby. Those opening paragraphs set the stage and establish the mood. The emotional aspects of looking at ghosts of the past ring true, since we’ve all seen once busy yards abandoned, empty station platforms and building foundations. You now have a better understanding of my approach to the hobby. I’m as interested in the artistic, intangibles as the practical.  However, there’s the dark side to all of this (cue the scary music).

The Curse of Knowledge

The Heath brothers speak at length about what they call the Curse of Knowledge. They’re referring to how experienced people who have built up an extensive knowledge base, forget what it is like not to have such knowledge and, therefore, assume that everyone has the same level of understanding they do. I saw this often when editing material for O Scale Trains Magazine. In a publishing niche like model railroading, one can safely assume a basic knowledge level among readers. The curse of knowledge comes in play with authors who assume all the readers know the advanced jargon and techniques they reference. Novice readers will not understand an advanced text that leaves out critical details and explanations because: “everybody knows this stuff.” In some cases, even I had to scratch my head trying to figure out an author’s intent with a piece of text. I’ve also been guilty of making my readers scratch their heads.

Think about how this  curse of knowledge impacts the way we communicate to each other and especially to a non-hobbyist. With fellow hobbyists it’s fairly easy to gauge their knowledge and experience and we can adjust how we present our thoughts easily. It’s when we speak to non-hobbyists that communication often bogs down from the influence of the curse of knowledge. Non-modelers know little to nothing about this hobby, so what do we do? We start inundating them with our curse of knowledge by spouting all manner of detailed info they’re not ready to process yet.

Make it stick

When speaking to non-hobbyists we might use the Made To Sticktechniques of simplicity, unexpectedness, concrete terms, and emotional references, wrapping it all up in a credible story. Talking to young people, one could say that a model railroad is like a 3D video game. “Yeah, you have to get these cars from here to over there in a specific order. But there’s a twist to it. You don’t want to waste time horsing around and you’ve got a partner on the ground whose throwing switches and uncoupling cars for you. You can’t always see him and you have to make sure he’s safe before you move. So here’s how you do that.”

That game reference is something they will understand and begin relating to. It’s also simple, unexpected (Whoa dude! A 3D game? Seriously?), and concrete. Weave a sticky story around the video game idea and you might get their serious attention.


*The opening paragraphs in italic were originally published in O Scale Trains Magazine #58 Sept./Oct. 2011. Additional editing was done for this post.