Making It Stick: The Christmas Story

image credit: Jeff Weese

It happened over 2000 years ago yet despite all that time, the story of the first Christmas is still with us and is stronger than ever, what makes it so powerfully memorable?

After writing about the Subway Story, I wondered if the principles of the SUCCES model (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion, Story) could also explain the longevity of the Nativity.

1. Simple – There’s no confusion, no-one thinks when they hear the story that it’s a discussion of the Roman administrative system or that it’s a story about a couple having a child on the run from a crazed Roman. It’s clear to anyone who hears it (believer or unbeliever) that a very simple core message rides through the story, that this is “the story of the birth of the son of God.”

2. Unexpected – The whole story is filled with the unexpected: the virgin birth, the fact that the son of God is not born to a devout religious elder but to an ordinary woman, he isn’t born in a fancy hospital with the best of treatment available but in a stable and slept in an animal’s feeding trough, angels tell the shepherds of the birth, three wise-men travel from far-off lands to see him and they are guided there by following a star. It’s these things that we remember most because they catch our attention, they raised an eyebrow. To get your message to stick you always need to raise a few eyebrows…

3. Concrete – You can tell the story quite quickly as “God made Mary pregnant, Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem had the baby in a stable, shepherds and wise men visited, they escaped to Egypt away from the child-killing Herod”. It’s not very exciting is it? It doesn’t help you picture the scenes and it needs more detail to make it real for us and so we learn about how the angel came to visit Mary, of how and why they travelled to Bethlehem from Nazareth, the “no room at the inn”, the stable and its animals, the shepherds tending their flocks, the three magi and their journey, the fleeing to Egypt and the killing of the innocents, lots of details to make the story more real to us, easier for us to picture, easier to remember.

4. Credible – Sceptics might think that the story lacks credibility but credibility is not to do with if it happened or not, it’s: do we believe the people who are giving us the message or telling the story. For our Christmas story we have ironclad credibility, the people who tell us the story(especially as children) have no reason to lie to us. We believe in the story and the message because our teachers and priests told us but even better than that we believe the story because the ultimate credible authority told us – our parents. Who is your credible authority? Who will make your listeners believe in your message?

5. Emotion – to make our message memorable we need to evoke an emotional response from our audience to get them to associate with the scenarios we present or with the characters in our stories. In the Christmas story we all know how exhausted we would feel after travelling for days on the back of a donkey, we know how we would feel to arrive in a town after a long journey and find out that all the hotels are full and how the only place that we can sleep is in a stable with the animals, we can imagine how much more difficult this would be for a pregnant woman and then for her to go into labour. Then after going through all that and giving birth to a healthy baby to discover that Herod has ordered his soldiers to kill all infants – whether 2000 years ago or today, every listener can associate with these feelings, with this emotional roller-coaster. By tapping into the emotions of your audience, your message will stay in their minds for longer.

6. Story – of course, the Christmas story scores heavily in this category because it’s got all the elements of a great story, likeable heroes, a bad guy, adventure, the heroes struggling with situations and events that are beyond their control, all wrapped up with plenty of magic. We all love stories and it’s not surprising that for hundreds of years that our history and lessons have been passed down through stories because we remember stories better than dry facts and figures (think of the stories of Newton discovering gravity or the discovery of penicillin). Don’t bore your audience with endless facts and figures, find the story behind the figures and the audience will understand and remember your message better.