The Secrets of Storytelling

The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870 Sir John Everett MillaisWhat’s the story with storytelling?

Suddenly everyone’s talking about storytelling, as though it were the answer to all our problems. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. So stay with me dear reader, as we explore together and uncover the secrets of storytelling.

What is Storytelling?

Simply put, storytelling is an ancient art form, a means of human expression, a way to tell others about events through words and actions. As distinct from dance and mime, storytelling uses language to present an account of connected events–a narrative.

Poetry is considered storytelling when it tells a story. Called “narrative poetry“, it includes epics, ballads, idylls, and lays that are usually written in metered verse — the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

American film director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Toy Story) says storytelling is joke telling, i.e. knowing what the punch line will be, how the story will end, and that the joke is building towards a singular goal that “ideally deepens some truth about who we are as human beings”.

The late Steve Sabol, the man behind NFL Films, once said

 tell me a fact and I’ll learn, tell me a truth and I’ll believe.  But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.

Why use Storytelling?

If you had a choice between reading a report of cold, hard facts or listening to a story, which would you choose? Studies have shown that our brains are more engaged by storytelling than reading straight data. In other words, we remember stories but forget facts.

 If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
― Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works

Brain scans have revealed that stories not only stimulate the brain, but change how we behave.  A neurochemical called oxytocin is produced in the brain when we show kindness and are trusted by others. It heightens our ability to empathize with others — to share in their emotions.

In tests, blood draws from volunteers before and after listening to a story found that character-driven narratives consistently cause oxytocin synthesis in the brain. Oxytocin makes us behave more cooperatively and even influences our willingness to be charitable.

In other studies, scientists discovered what happens when a story focuses our attention by creating tension during the narrative. Patients were more likely to share the emotions of the characters and continue imitating their behaviors after the story ends. This is why we get the feeling of dominance after James Bond foils the villain’s plot and saves the world, or why we get the urge to workout after watching the Spartans defy the odds in the movie 300.

James Bond and LeonidasAnother chemical called cortisol is produced when we focus our attention. This poignant video story explains how, as social creatures, dramatic stories cause us to connect with others around us. Some theorists believe that every engaging story has a universal story structure called the “dramatic arc”. It starts with an inciting incident, and increases tension through conflict and obstacles, leading to a climax where the hero throws everything at overcoming the crisis — and once achieved, there is resolution. The end.

Storytelling in Organizations

Storytelling is often the best way for leaders to communicate with people in their organization. Where charts and Powerpoint slides can leave people numb, storytelling engages the imagination, is more entertaining and more effective at persuading. Leaders establish credibility and authenticity through telling the stories about how they overcame adversities and why they believe so strongly in the mission and vision.

Storytelling in Education

Telling a story in an interesting and compelling way is an important teaching skill. Good storytelling is not only entertaining but holds student attention while they learn important concepts, attitudes and skills. Storytelling enhances students’ communication skills and helps prepare them to function well in today’s social world.

 Stories are the way we store information in the brain. If teachers fill their
students’ brains with miscellaneous facts and data without any connection,
the brain becomes like a catchall closet into which items are tossed and
hopelessly lost. But stories help us to organize and remember information,
and tie content together (Caine and Caine 1994, 121—122; Egan 1992, 11).

Storytelling in Art

The Australian aboriginal people painted symbols on cave walls to help them remember stories. They would then relate the narrative to others through spoken word, music, rock art, and dance, bringing understanding and meaning to their existence.

Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western AustraliaStorytelling and narration play a significant role in contemporary art, developing alongside documentary practices in art. Storytelling captures people’s attention, and an increasing number of exhibitions feature strongly narrative work.

Storytelling in Marketing

Consumers want a more personal connection in the way they gather information about products and services.

Brands like Coca Cola, Etsy and LinkedIn harness the science of storytelling through content marketing.

According to this infographic from OneSpot, Americans consume over 100,000 digital words every day. 92% prefer ads in the form of stories.

The Science of Storytelling

What have we learned?

We’ve learned that neuroscience is shedding scientific light on why stories are so important. A good story is one which captures and holds our attention and puts us into the narrative where we can see things from the characters’ point of view.

Storytelling can be applied to many aspects of our lives to help us communicate more effectively in relationships, at work, in education. And stories help us express ourselves more creatively.

When was the last time you told a story?

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