My grandmother once had a problem. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t remember the difference between her right and left. And while being directionally challenged didn’t pose many problems while she was a young girl, her affliction needed to be resolved after she learned how to drive.

Her solution came from an unexpected source–her Roman Catholic upbringing. One day, she noticed that she always used her right hand while making the sign of the cross.  Evidently, her conscious mind couldn’t remember right from left, but her unconscious mind did, and she’d stumbled upon a memory trigger. From that day onward, whenever she received directional information and needed to determine right from left, my grandmother would start to make the sign of the cross and then navigate appropriately.

We use memory triggers such as mnemonic rules and rhymes all the time:

  • “i” before “e” except after “c” …
  • 30 days hath September, April, May, and November…

So, it begs the question: Do story triggers exist? The answer is yes, but we need to study what makes things memorable first.

Every waking minute of every day, information from our five senses inundates our brains. We smell the coffee, hear it percolate, see it steam and feel its temperature until we finally taste it. We’ll drink that coffee with the morning news playing in the background while simultaneously checking email and waiting for the microwave oven to beep.

People are truly creatures of habit, but what do we remember about our routines? Not much, because for some reason, our brains ignore ordinary events.

Have you ever driven to work only to wonder how you got there? What happened? Did you lose consciousness? Were you asleep at the wheel? Of course not. You probably drove safely and obeyed all the traffic rules. Had that same commute included a flat tire, a fender bender, or a blinding snowstorm, however, you’d not only remember many of the details, but you’d also have a story to tell your coworkers.

Our minds look past sameness to find differences, giving contrast an unfair advantage over our memories. Rather than remembering everyday experiences, we recall atypical transitions into and out of them. Trigger words like first and last, help us recall our first job, first car, first date, and first kiss. If we haven’t seen someone for a very long time, it’s common to ask, “When was the last time we saw one another?”

Therefore, since our memories live at the edges of change, that’s where we should look for our stories. Business storytellers use trigger words–words that live at the edge of change–in two different ways:

1. Drawing stories out of clients. Most clients freeze up when asked for their stories, mistakenly assuming that they have no stories to tell. However, storytellers know that a few carefully chosen trigger words can prompt those same clients into telling stories about the best decision they’ve ever made, the worst customer they’ve met, the first time they tried a new approach or the last time they visited a customer.

2. Hooking an audience. Great storytellers know that humans bond through shared experiences. They use trigger words to get audiences to lean forward. For example:

  • “The first time that I…”
  • “The last time that we…”
  • “The best example of…”
  • “The most embarrassing moment of my life was when I…”

Listeners and storytellers bond over trigger words because we’ve all had firsts, lasts, bests, and worsts. And more importantly, listeners know instinctively that good stories reside on the other side of them.

So, are you searching for a story to tell? Use trigger words to spark memories:

  • most and least
  • best and worst.
  • highest and lowest
  • biggest and smallest
  • firsts and lasts

I bet you’ll uncover many stories that your audience can relate with.