Stories of experience

One form of evidence we see every day is stories of personal experiences.

Worksafe ad: "I was new and afraid to ask." Portrait of a man missing his hand.

The ad doesn't tell us the whole story, but the quote, "I was new and I was afraid to ask," coupled with the photo, is enough for us to imagine what happened.

The claim in this ad is that if you're in a dangerous work situation and you are unsure about something, then you should speak up, and the evidence to support that claim is the young man's experience.

The story doesn't need more detail because the one-line quote plus the picture of the man's arm are all the evidence we need to accept the claim.

Stories of experience are often used in arguments about history.

For example, imagine two people arguing about how Romans in Pompeii reacted to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD.

One person says the eruption happened so quickly that the Romans didn't have time to react; they were just wiped out. The other person says the eruption occurred in phases, so the Romans actually had lots of time to react.

Based on this snippet, from a letter written by a Roman called Pliny the Younger, who was near Pompeii when the eruption occurred, whose claim would you believe?

Pompeii survivor volcano vesuvius midjourney

By now it was dawn, but the light was still dim and faint. The buildings round us were already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed. This finally decided us to leave the town.

We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people (wanting to act on someone else’s decision in preference to their own), who hurried us on our way by pressing hard behind in a dense crowd. Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary experiences which thoroughly alarmed us.

The carriages we had ordered to be brought out began to run in different directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary even when wedged with stones.

We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand.

On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size.

Pliny's account, from nearly 2,000 years ago, is the first recorded description of a volcanic eruption!

It contains vivid details that certainly give the impression that people in Pompeii had time to react to phases of the eruption.

But, at the same time, Pliny was not in Pompeii himself—he was in a town called Misenum, not far away, but far enough that he was having a different experience.

The argument might then change to whether or not people in Pompeii would have had a similar experience.

Stories of personal experiences are powerful because they can be concrete, specific, & emotional.

We believe our own experiences, and stories let us simulate someone else's experience, so we feel like it happened to us, which then convinces us it must be true!

Not all personal experiences have to be dramatic to serve as evidence.

For example, this snippet uses a small childhood memory to introduce an argument about why so many people are superstitious:

Growing up in Greece, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ home in a small coastal village in the region of Chalkidiki. It was warm and sunny, but occasionally the summer storms brought torrential rain. You could see them coming from far away, with black clouds looming over the horizon, lit up by lightning.

I was intrigued to see my grandparents prepare for the thunderstorm.

Grandma would cover a large mirror on the living room wall with a dark cloth and throw a blanket over the TV. Meanwhile, Grandpa would climb a ladder to remove the light bulb over the patio door. Then they switched off all the lights in the house and waited the storm out.

I never understood why they did all this. When I asked, they said that light attracts lightning. At least that was what people said, so better to be on the safe side.

Where do these kinds of beliefs come from?

This snippet is from the very beginning of the article.

Notice how it opens with a personal story before introducing the issue?

That's a very common pattern in persuasive writing: a narrow focus to hook the audience with specific details before widening to consider a broader scope.

Personal experiences can be captured in many forms, including writing, audio, and video.

My Octopus Teacher is a film that uses personal experience to argue that octopuses are highly intelligent and emotional creatures:

In an argument, personal experiences might be the entirety of the evidence, or they might be combined with other types of evidence.

For example, Hollaback Girl is a radio piece in which a young woman tries to convince men that women don't enjoy being called out on the street.

The piece opens with a personal experience that serves as evidence for the argument as well as impetus for collecting more evidence (in the form of interviews with cat-callers):

Ira Glass

Eleanor was just a kid, maybe 8 or 9, standing at a corner, waiting to cross the street, minding her own business —

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And this guy like, hung out of the window of his car and yelled out, "Call me when you're legal!" And it's just so weird. I mean, partially because I wasn't used to being a thing that you would want to have call you.

Ira Glass

You mean specifically because you were a child?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Yeah. Yeah. But also, because like what did he want there? What am I going to do in that scenario? Like, am I going to chase him? Am I going to actually give him my number so that he can call me in 11 years time when I am legal? Like, what's going to happen? What does he want there?

Ira Glass

So the guy drove off. Eleanor grew up. And as an adult, she saw how often women are cat called, and she decided to do an experiment where she'd stop and talk to the guys, treat it like the beginning of a conversation. Like, OK, you wanted to talk? Let's talk. Ask some questions.

She took a recorder and a microphone. To increase the odds of getting catcalled, she ditched her normal clothes and her glasses for heels and lipstick. She lives in Australia, in Sydney, and she headed to an area called Kings Cross.

You might notice that this piece uses the story -> issue intro we saw with the article about superstition.

You might also notice that the first piece of evidence is a personal story, but the second (and more general) piece of evidence might be a survey of some sort.

(We'll talk about surveys later in this lesson.)

Many arguments don't recount personal experiences in their entirety. Instead, they might quote compelling details and summarise the rest.

For example, this snippet takes tiny fragments of personal accounts to paint a picture of the deadly hazards of coal mining in the 1600s:

Writers in the 1600s described the suddenness with which this invisible gas would suffocate its victims. In one incident, a band of eight men and one woman entered an area of a mine where choke damp had collected and “fell down dead, as if they had been shott.” Another account notes that choke damp smothered its victim so quickly that the miner was “without access to cry but once ‘God’s mercy.’” Miners would sometimes encounter the gas while being let down the mine shaft on a rope at the beginning of a shift and then fall from the rope to their deaths.

This snippet opens with the claim that choke damp (the invisible gas) killed people strikingly quickly.

The evidence consists of a couple of eyewitness accounts, but their experiences are not recounted in detail. Instead, they are summarised, with a few striking details added for emotional impact.

Let's play with personal experience as evidence.

Here's a weird vintage ad. Support the claim in this ad with some made-up evidence in the form of one or more personal experiences:

Create some evidence for the ad's claim in the form of one or more personal experiences. (~3-5 sentences)

Here's an example of personal experience providing evidence for the ad:

At first I was skeptical, but five days in, something wild happened—kids who wouldn't usually give me the time of day were now laughing at my jokes and asking if I wanted to sit with them at lunch. Ms. Kranz, who's normally immune to student charm, let me redo my chem test. Even my cat seemed to like me more. Dr. Plumbago's "Charisma Commando" course changed my life!

In a nutshell

  • Stories of experience can be vivid, emotional, concrete, and specific.
  • This makes them easy to understand and imagine.
  • The power of these stories is that they make us feel like we were there. 
  • They help us simulate another person's experience, so we feel like it happened to us too.
  • Some problems are they are often limited to one person's experience, and people often misremember or misrepresent events, plus the experience might not be generalisable.

Stories of personal experiences can be:

  • Presented in first-person or third-person.
  • Captured at the moment they occurred or at a later date.
  • Contemporary or historical.
  • Recorded in text, audio, video and other media.
  • Presented as entire stories or as fragments.
  • Combined with other commentary.