Come closer, gather round, join me at the campfire. I want to tell you a story, about the power of story.
Storytelling has been part of our humanity since we evolved language and the ability to communicate with one another, over 100 thousand years ago. For millennia, we have told each other stories to convey information and learning, to pass on wisdom from one generation to another, to develop culture and history, and simply to survive.
We might think that these ancestors of ours, the early homo sapiens, lived in a far less complex world than we do today, but in reality survival of each individual depended on an understanding of causal relationships over time and space… So we had to share stories, to learn and survive.
Our ancestors heard stories in the world around them. This configuration of stars heralds the future coming of the cold season, so we must migrate in this direction, or the weaker members of our tribe will die. This spoor indicates the potential for a successful hunt, but the trail is aged and the pursuit will be long… we know it will be worthwhile, because of success stories of hunts in the past… Berries of this particular hue have been known to cause terrible painful deaths, but disturb not those tender green shoots over there, because in many moons time their fruit will feed our entire clan through the short dark days.
All of these lessons had to be learned and passed on to other tribe members, who had no way to write them down. They couldn’t hyperlink or hashtag them, or binge-watch the previous series to catch up.
So we embedded this practice of oral history transmission, culturally and biologically. We learned to gather by the campfire at the end of the day, to learn from the elders, to pass on what we had experienced to others. Our memories developed to favour the narrative form, to care about consequence — what happened after that, how does one event foreshadow the subsequent ones, what happens next? We became a storied species, and this fundamental ability — to share and accumulate learning over time by sharing stories — drove homo sapiens to the top of the evolutionary tree. You know the rest.
The rest of the story.
And in the 21st century, we still crave stories. They remain the most effective way to convey complex ideas and connect with other people, to bring people in to your vision, of how your ideas are going to impact the future. If you are creating something so new, so innovative, you can’t point to demonstrations or outcomes to persuade other people… you need to paint a picture instead, take people on a journey into your imagination. You need to tell them a great story.
You can use the power of story to embed your message and create influence, to persuade, but indirectly. Nobody likes to be pitched to, sold at… we naturally resist this. But if you weave your message into a story, you can bypass that resistance, and replace it with intrigue and a keenness to know more.
Why are stories so powerful?
Stories are sticky. Because they engage the emotions, good stories connect to the heart and persist in the memory. They stay with you — perhaps for decades. We all recall stories from our own childhoods, and perhaps, in the tradition of our primal ancestors, we’ve shared those same tales with the next generation in our turn. We recall the plots of novels or TV shows, even advertising which has tapped successfully into the storytelling mode, to embed its narratives firmly in our memories. And we can learn to use this power to disseminate our own messages.
Stories engage the emotions, the limbic brain. This is what gives them the power to influence, in ways which bypass the conscious and rational parts of the mind.
When someone is fully attuned to the story you are telling, you can see the effects physically — they make eye contact, they might physically incline toward the storyteller, just as they once gathered around the campfire, they’re on the edge of their seats.
If you put them in a functional MRI at that moment, you’d see their brain literally firing and pulsing in time with the narrative, mirroring the brainwaves of the storyteller, as their rational system two cerebral thinking is bypassed in favour of the more primitive parts of brain, controlling our autonomic and emotional response, and triggering deeply internalised responses to archetypes and personal truths.
This creates a powerful sense of belief. We think of ourselves as a rational species, which evaluates evidence and makes informed decisions. Or at the very least, we certainly regard ourselves as individuals in this way, however flakey and easily-led everybody else is — we don’t follow the herd, we think for ourselves.
But if everyone believes this story about themselves, then we become part of the herd by default. One compelling anecdote can outweigh a mass of evidence — just look at the anti-vaxx movement. The moving case study of a single sick or disabled child, is far far more emotionally effective than a ton of statistical data about the lives saved by vaccination — which is why we astonishingly have measles outbreaks in 2019, actually killing people in Europe and the US.
In fact, we actually seek out stories to validate data and hard facts — this is at the heart of journalism. It’s not enough to hear that a tsunami has struck or a plane has crashed, we need a reporter to get to the scene as soon as possible and interview survivors, talk to anyone directly affected, preferably stick a videocamera in their shocked faces. Clever news reporters will soar and dive from the macro to the intimate, to help us understand the big picture and the global impact, then zoom in to a personal story to relate that to the human scale and effect, where we can empathise personally and directly. Tell us the story — what was your life like before, what happened, what was the impact on you personally — because this is what our readers and viewers will relate to, that one life changed forever, not the numbers who died or the economic impact. The reporter’s job is to tell us why it’s news, why this matters — but they know we’ll relate to the wider impact far better through direct individual example.
So many industries, from journalism to advertising to innovation, are leveraging the power of story, to do their work effectively and engage audiences successfully.
What’s your story?
Article by CEO of BlockSparks OÜ and freelance writer and creator,
obsessed with crypto, blockchain +future tech, future-of-work + business, +emergent ideas generally