“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, American author
In 1906, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drugs Act – effectively creating the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Just six months prior, publishers released a little book called The Jungle that told the story of slaughterhouse workers. Author Upton Sinclair described the scenes in graphic detail: poisoned rats climbing into piles of meat to die, workers being burned and blinded from exposure to chemicals used on food and so much more. His artful storytelling seared these disturbing details into the minds of American consumers, pushing the government into action. That story provoked policy, just as stories have provoked action for centuries.
Storytelling isn’t just for bedtime – it impacts everything from our personal relationships to careers to medicine to national security. And major universities are taking note, forming classes and programs targeting the topic, such as MIT’s Center for Future Storytelling.
When someone tells us a story, our brain actually mirrors that of the storyteller’s and enables us to understand better. Researchers found that using descriptive words like “lavender” and “cinnamon” not only activates the part of our brain that processes language, but it also impacts the region dealing with smells. While listing facts may convey the basic information we need, it is through detailed stories that emotion and passion are sparked - setting the stage for making a lasting impression.
Even the Defense Department’s research branch, DARPA, is paying attention to storytelling. It’s looking at the intertwining of the biology of narratives and emotions and how it ties into memory, judgment, identity and neuroscience. Because stories impact people so deeply, DARPA is using it in a national security context to understand radicalism, terrorists and the human terrain of battlefields. They are finding out how narratives can change political and societal landscapes.
And doctors are seeing the value in storytelling, too. Dr. Rita Charon, founder of Columbia University’s program in Narrative Medicine, said she created the discipline after realizing she wasn’t a good listener. She noticed important clues weren’t hidden in the diagnostic scans as much as they were in patients’ habits, family circumstances, health insurance situations and other factors that painted a story of their lives. Now through a deep understanding of the mechanics of storytelling, she’s working to bring compassionate care back to the medical field. And the numbers show she’s not chasing ghosts. Research published in the journal of Academic Medicine showed that doctors with high empathy scores had better clinical outcomes that those with lower scores. Using storytelling as a communication tool in medicine allows doctors and patients to speak the same language, connect and build that sense of understanding that leads to positive results.
Storytelling is an essential part of who we are as humans – it’s a powerful way to generate the empathy that connects us. The art of telling tales has survived civilizations, from the cavemen paintings to the sharing of oral histories. And as the number of technology tools grows, we’ll have more ways to share these stories – like authors who are tweeting their books 140 characters at a time.
Great narratives take off because of powerful content and dynamic delivery. But just like an airplane needs both wings to fly, your story will crash and burn if you don’t have both. We all need to pay attention to storytelling skills and practice the art with mindfulness. Here are some things to remember when building your storytelling prowess:
Start with an exclamation point!
Whether you’re sharing a story with a friend at home, colleagues in a boardroom or thousands of people at a convention, you must grab people’s attention within the first two minutes. Begin with an unexpected intro, prop, humor, etc. Apple CEO Tim Cook did this well during his keynote at the 2012 Worldwide Developers Conference. Everyone anticipated Cook would take the stage to start the event – but he had iPhone’s personal assistant, Siri, kick things off with the crowd. That element of surprise captured the audience for the rest of the presentation – and it was strategic, as he later highlighted Siri’s latest features.
Characters aren’t just for novels. Use them in your stories.
For people to care about your story, they have to connect with you and the people you’re describing. Share details about yourself and those in your story that others can relate to – anything from loving a morning cup of coffee to being a dog-lover to stressing out before major deadlines.
Words are colors – paint a vibrant world.
Details are the brushstrokes that help paint a beautiful and exceptional story. Whether describing the color of someone’s Converse shoes or the way it felt to receive a piece of news, these are the powerful ways you’ll transport people into your world and make them invested in what you’re sharing.
Slow down and pace yourself.
If no one can understand you, you could be revealing the meaning of life to a snoozing audience.
Build up suspense throughout your stories, and wait until the end to bring closure. Remember The Blair Witch Project, the movie about the teens who went missing in the woods of Maryland? The public was told they were watching the youth’s video footage that police found - creating an eerie question about whether the story was true or a Hollywood home run. The movie was shot on a cheap camera on a tiny budget, yet it raked in more than $29 million the first week of its 1999 release. Forbes named it the best social media campaign of all time in 2010 for keeping people questioning whether the legend was real.
Put things into context.
Give people visual references they can relate to in their own world. For example, Cook told people a new MacBook Pro was 0.71 inches – but it resonated when he picked up the computer and showed the audience how it was thinner than his finger.
Take advantage of new technology.
This applies to everything from Prezi, the interactive answer to boring PowerPoint presentations, to Animoto, a simple way to integrate and share videos, text, music and more. We are living in a technology-centric world – use the latest gadgets and software to help bring your story to life and spark listeners’ imaginations.
People will always remember the way you make them feel, so leave your audience with some inspiration that puts them in a better place than where they were before you started talking.
If we can harness powerful storytelling to build empathy and better connectivity – and share those stories across the increasing array of technology platforms - we’ll not only be able to change our lives. We’ll be able to change the world.
As Swarthmore English Professor Harold Goddard once said, “The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
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