Humans have always been storytellers, as we are social beings who seek and need connection with each other. Stories turned out to be very effective to achieve, just as they are useful for the transfer of knowledge and for sense making. This, over time, has produced myths, legends, world literature and religious writings.
It has become increasingly clear why humans need stories:
Our brain is no empty cupboard in which you can stash and store every fact and piece of information separately. In fact, our brain is constantly searching for ‘chunks’, meaningful wholes, and connections between units of information. Stories fit in seamlessly with this preference for meaningful entities: a story connects events and data and (as a result) becomes a meaningful whole. Our brain can hardly process ten separate bullet points. We do not remember them unless we have a photographic memory, which is rare, or if we are able to connect them in some way.
Stories connect events, data, etc. They are ‘meaningful wholes’. This makes them both much easier to remember and to pass on to others than any other type of information.
Stories fit in seamlessly with the workings of our brain in other respects as well. Just read this fascinating article by economist and psychologist Paul Zak. He did pioneering research on the question Why your brains love good storytelling Paul J Zak
Stories are concerned with people and events. They have a clear beginning and ending. In between ‘start and finish’ time passes and all kinds of things happen. And somewhere in these events something special happens: the protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, a conflict, or ends up in an unexpected or undesirable situation. This forces her or him to reconsider the situation and make a decision (even if it is made unconsciously): the story takes a turn.
The struggle, the dilemma, the conflict or the unexpected event evokes emotions in the protagonist ánd in the listener. He either recognizes himself in the situation or not at all. He recognizes himself in the decision of the protagonist or not at all. Which evokes emotions.
In recognizing these emotions, a connection is established between the main character / narrator and the listener. Take a look at the video below, about the runner Derek Redmond …
And … nothing is as persuasive as emotions. Perhaps you have once bought a house and had drawn up a list of criteria it had to meet. That is, until you saw that one house and immediately (literally) were sold. Even though it did not meet any of your criteria. Your emotions decided for you. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explains the way this works in his book Thinking fast and slow. In short, it comes down to this: we all have a fast, emotional brain and a slow, rational brain. Most decisions, including the crucial ones, are conveniently left to our emotional brain. That’s good to know!
Thanks to science, we increasingly understand the way the world works: how solar eclipses arise, why it rains more often at a certain place in the world than it does at others, why the sun sets earlier in summer in the Netherlands than, for example, in the north of Sweden, etc.
Before this knowledge was available, people also sought explanations for these, and other, events. That is how we, humans, are: we want to understand, we want to make sense of things, we want to understand why things happen. It is the first question we ask ourselves when we are confronted with remarkable events.
In order to address the need to understand how the world works and why certain events take place, humans throughout history have developed stories that both explained and made sense. These stories, this ‘knowledge’, they handed over to future generations. Thus, stories were important carriers of meaning and knowledge.
Some stories, which have been preserved in the form of myths, legends and traditions, we now no longer consider to be ‘true’. But for the storytellers in the old days they certainly were! That’s how it goes with stories: we need them to get to grips with a complicated world. They are our personal truths.
We still develop stories. Again and again, every day. Because we, too, need to understand the world around us. And we, too, need to make sense of what happens to us and to what we see happening around us. We need to understand the connections between one event and another. This is exactly what stories do: they help us understand the connection between events, facts, etc..
This video from MSL Group again summarizes what the power of stories and storytelling is.
Why Business Storytelling?
As you can read in the adjoining text:
- Stories make the abstract real and tangible.
Thus, stories can bring to life and give meaning to abstract core values, an abstract strategic objective or an abstract vision;
- stories have a huge capacity to connect.
Hence, stories can engage employees strongly to their organization and its objectives (employee engagement); they can help leaders to develop deep and meaningful connections with their employees; they can help to build strong connections between the outside world and the inner world of an organization (alignment);
- stories are very persuasive.
So, stories can get employees to connect with (change) objectives, win clients for an organization or put entrepreneurs and companies firmly on the map;
- stories help us to remember, learn and share knowledge.
So, stories play an essential role in training, education and knowledge management;
- stories are of human expectations.
So, wherever people matter, stories matter;
Stories are told everywhere and by everyone. Those who listen to the stories gain valuable insight into experiences, perceptions and emotions of people: the undercurrent. Therefore, storylistening is at least as important as storytelling.