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Why are stories so impactful? How are they important personally, socially, and professionally?
Stories can be powerful elements of lectures, advertisements, sermons, and therapy sessions. Stories are more effective than most other ways of relaying information, and the importance of storytelling goes far deeper than communication.
Continue reading to see how storytelling engages, teaches, inspires, makes things real, and even heals.
#1: Stories Engage
The importance of storytelling can be seen in the way that it effectively grabs people’s attention. You’ve probably experienced your mind wandering while listening to a presentation or a lecture, only for your ears to perk up when the speaker starts telling a story.
Communications coach Carmine Gallo writes about the importance of storytelling in presentations in her book Talk Like TED. Stories are much more likely to engage your audience than other methods of sharing information. Marketing expert Jonah Berger, in his book Contagious, continues in this vein in the context of storytelling in business, writing that you must make your product crucial to the story in order to encourage word-of-mouth marketing. People love to share interesting stories. So, when they relate to the story you tell, they’ll have to mention your product because it’s a critical part of the story.
Imagine you’re giving a speech to potential customers about the effectiveness of your new product. Telling a gripping story about how your product has already helped an important client will be much more exciting than listing statistics about the product’s efficacy.
#2: Stories Teach
The importance of storytelling can also be seen in teaching. Effective storytelling teaches because it illustrates a point in a real-world scenario.
In Gallo’s discussion of the importance of storytelling in presentations, she points out that people are more likely to understand a concept if you tell them a story about how it works in the “real world.”
Stories tell people how to act. Made to Stick, a book by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, uses the SUCCESs formula for creating “sticky” messages. The “S” stands for “stories.” The authors write that stories tell people how to act and even let them mentally practice responding to a situation. In this way, stories are simulations.
Studies show that mental rehearsals or simulations lead to more effective responses to real circumstances. Other studies have shown that they can even trigger physical responses, meaning that mentally simulating an action can be much like actually doing it.
Even outside of Christianity, Jesus Christ is regarded as one of the most effective teachers in history. He often used stories (also called parables) to teach, and it’s a common practice in preaching today. Aesop’s fables, which include morals, serve as another example of the power of storytelling when it comes to teaching.
Imagine you’re giving a presentation about a complicated new sales process that you’ve been testing out for a while, but that your team has yet to adopt. Your team members will probably understand the new process much quicker if, rather than bombarding them with the dry theory of how it works, you tell them a story about a sale you’ve made while using it. You can use your story to guide them through each step of the new process, thus illustrating how it works.
Made to Stick includes several examples of using stories to teach. Medical personnel and firefighters often tell each other stories about how they handled crisis situations. The stories are inspiring, but also share information about what works and doesn’t work in such situations. For example, in his book Sources of Power, psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a critical care nurse who noticed an infant’s breathing problem and summoned emergency help. As the staff started the standard emergency procedures, something didn’t seem right to her. She realized the heart monitor was wrong—emergency staff had misdiagnosed the problem and were starting to treat the baby’s lungs instead of his heart. She intervened by knocking a syringe from the neonatologist’s hand and starting heart compressions, which saved the baby’s life. The story was an inspiring tale of courage and risk on the nurse’s part, but also warned against relying too much on machines and illustrated what to do in a situation like this.
People in other professions also share stories that inspire and educate coworkers. However, in some cases of storytelling in business, the stories go a step further by allowing listeners to mentally practice solving a problem (simulations). Made to Stick includes several examples of “shop talk” stories as simulations.
For instance, in one study, a pair of Xerox copier technicians told coworkers a story of how, step by step, they diagnosed a difficult problem and fixed it, despite being distracted by an incorrect error code message. As they told the story, their fellow technicians mentally walked with them through the problem, considering the options and steps to take. The story was a mental simulation in which they could practice their own response.
Researchers at UCLA asked two groups of students to think about a problem that was stressing them. The first group was told to visualize success, while the second group was asked to simulate the problem, or mentally walk through it from beginning to end. When the groups reported back on how they had coped with their problem, the simulation group members were more likely to have taken steps to solve the problem. They were also more likely to report that their mood had improved and they’d learned from the experience. The lesson is that simulation or practice is more effective than a positive mental attitude in solving problems.
When people are given water to drink and told to imagine it’s lemon juice, they salivate more, as if they were actually drinking lemon juice. Similarly, stories act like mental flight simulators, allowing listeners to practice actions they can take. Including these kinds of stories can make your message stickier.
#3: Stories Inspire
The importance of storytelling is also revealed in the way it inspires people. Stories appeal to beliefs and feelings, and real-life stories in particular provide evidence that your assertion is true.
In Talk Like TED, Gallo explains that, if you’re making a sales pitch that details how great your new product or service is, potential customers will want to see evidence that backs up your claims before they become willing to part with their money. Real-life stories about how your product or service has already benefited customers will provide this evidence.
Because people often buy based on emotion rather than need, Seth Godin explains in All Marketers Are Liars, it’s important for marketers to appeal to beliefs and feelings. This can involve lying by a certain definition. Godin defines lies as stories people tell themselves, which marketers build on. He uses the terms “lying” and “storytelling” interchangeably as he discusses the importance of storytelling in business.
Godin claims the consumer’s belief in a marketer’s lie makes it true. The product usually doesn’t fix a real problem or need (at least, not any better than a competitor’s cheaper option). Therefore, our belief in how the product will make us feel is what we’re really buying.
We mentioned that, in Made to Stick, the “S” in the SUCCESs formula for creating “sticky” messages stands for “stories.” We discussed that using stories in your messages tells people how to act. That implies that stories inspire people to act in the first place.
Former World Bank official Stephen Denning understands the importance of storytelling. He used what he called “springboard stories” to inspire colleagues and others to help develop solutions to problems. In his book, The Springboard, he describes a springboard story as one that creates buy-in on problems and opens up possibilities for change. Denning contended that, when you present information with statistics or assertions, you implicitly invite your audience to analyze and debate your ideas. But, with a story, you open their minds and enlist their help.
Godin provides an example of the importance of storytelling when it comes to inspiring people. Compare a pair of $20 Lenovo wireless earbuds with $159 AirPods. They both let you listen to music without the hassle of getting tangled in cords. So why spend the extra $139? You probably like the AirPods better for some reason, right? Godin would attribute this to your belief that using the AirPods makes you cool, despite the fact they’re just a pair of wireless earbuds.
Made to Stick uses the example of the Subway Guy to illustrate the importance of storytelling in business. In the late 1990s, Subway introduced a line of seven healthier sandwiches, each with under 6 grams of fat. It touted them in an ad campaign with the message “7 under 6.” That wasn’t a very sticky message by the standards of this book, but it caught the attention of college student Jared Fogle, who, at 425 pounds, had developed disabling health and mobility problems. He resolved to lose weight and started by trying one of Subway’s low-fat subs. He liked it and developed a diet of a 12-inch veggie sub for lunch and a six-inch turkey sub for dinner.
Over three months, Jared lost nearly 100 pounds, so he continued. He also began walking. His story took a circuitous route to national fame. Eventually, Subway’s national marketing arm rolled out an ad featuring Jared. The chain’s sales went up 18 percent that year as the Subway Guy’s story inspired people to act.
The popular Chicken Soup for the Soul books are collections of inspirational stories that have been around since 1993. The authors of Made to Stick analyzed hundreds of them to understand what makes an inspirational story successful and found that more than 80 percent feature one of three basic plots:
- Challenge—people overcome obstacles
- Connection—people develop relationships across gaps
- Creativity—people solve problems and inspire new ways of thinking
When Stephen Denning, the author of The Springboard, was at the World Bank, he was assigned to study the organization’s information management, an abstract topic difficult to grasp or be enthusiastic about. So, whenever he talked to executives and colleagues about information flow, he told the story of an aid worker in Zambia who spent time desperately searching for information to help combat a local outbreak of malaria—information the World Bank could have easily made available. Whenever Denning told the story, colleagues offered ideas for better information sharing.
#4: Stories Make It Real
The ability of stories to make things real further illustrates the importance of storytelling. Stories effectively convey emotion and help others understand your experiences.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien tells the stories of a small company of American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. Through the narrative, the book blurs the line between autobiography and fiction, leaving the reader unsure as to what is fact and what is myth. In reading these stories, we explore the harrowing physical and psychological toll of warfare and the dehumanizing and brutalizing effects of combat on human beings. We also see the transformative power that narrative and storytelling have to help us make sense of our experiences and give meaning and clarity to even the most shocking, chaotic, and traumatizing events.
These stories may not be true in an empirical sense—they’re often fantastical and surreal—but they accurately illustrate the emotional turbulence and mind-bending experience of actually being in Vietnam, so in that sense, they are true and worthy of retelling.
O’Brien reminds us that the narrative that makes up a story is often more true than a literal recounting of the events that actually transpired. He defines this as story-truth vs. happening-truth.
O’Brien can relate to the story of a collective psychotic break on the part of this patrol unit, because he knows all too well what being alone in the dark jungle does to the human mind.
He notes that the story-truth like the biography of a young Vietnamese soldier—and how O’Brien lobbed a grenade at him as he passed by—brings the emotions of the war into the present in a way that happening-truth never could. He might as well have killed the young man, because that is how he’s experienced the event for all these years—this is why he chooses to tell the story this way.
#5: Stories Heal
Perhaps nothing can speak more to the importance of storytelling than the way it provides healing. Stories help you process and make sense of memories and emotions.
The healing aspect of stories relates to the making-it-real aspect, so we’ll continue with The Things They Carried to flesh out this point.
Even years after they’ve returned home, the men can’t stop telling themselves war stories. The stories, whether they are literally true or not, provide a powerful catharsis. Through the power of narrative, they can make sense of their experiences and convey to others what it felt like to be in Vietnam. It’s the stories that connect the past to the present, that tie together the loose narrative threads of their lives. Whether they literally happened or not is irrelevant. They provide meaning and coherence to memory, they fill in the gaps between who the men were in Vietnam and who they are now.
For some of the men, these were rituals that objectified the horror of war and made it seem less personal—it was easier to cope if it was all just a joke.
O’Brien thinks about how he has made the transition from Vietnam to the world after. He has done this by telling stories, which he likens to clearing the throat. Storytelling enables him to clarify and make sense of his experiences, objectifying them and separating them from himself. He has engaged in catharsis by telling his stories.
Let’s switch gears a bit and see how Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson bring out the importance of storytelling in The Whole-Brain Child. The book explains the neurological and developmental reasons for many of your child’s meltdowns and misbehaviors. When the different parts of your child’s brain—such as the logical left brain and the emotional right brain—are not integrated, it makes your child mentally and emotionally off-balance, which causes her to act out.
In their book, the authors offer a story-related strategy to help your child recount difficult memories. Painful and scary experiences can cause a right-brain takeover, even long after the experience ends. You can help your child tell the story of the experience and how it made her feel.
When children learn to organize memories into stories and then share those stories, they can use those skills to work through difficult experiences for the rest of their lives. Research shows that storytelling—either verbally or through journaling—calms emotion-driven activity in the right brain.
This strategy is especially important when your child has been through a traumatic event, such as a car accident. Although you might want to steer your child away from the subject in an effort to avoid upsetting her, she needs the opportunity to process the event and her emotions so that she can move forward, instead of fixating on an unresolved traumatic experience.
When you help your child tell her story:
- Emphasize how the situation was resolved, which reassures your child that there’s a solution if the situation were to come up again.
- Talk about strategies to avoid a similar incident in the future (if applicable).
- Help your child create more positive associations with the thing or the place that has become scary. For example, if your child got sick at school and now is afraid to go back, remind her of everything she loves about school, such as her friends and favorite activities.
- Don’t force your child to retell the story if she’s not ready or not in the mood. Be aware of the time and place when you initiate the conversation. Children often find it easier to talk while doing some other activity, such as playing a game, building something, or driving in the car.
- Be creative about how you apply this strategy. If your child resists talking, encourage her to write about the memory, draw a picture of it, or talk to a friend or trusted adult. You can even work with your child to write and illustrate a book that tells the story.
In The Things They Carried, O’Brien shares the story of his childhood girlfriend Linda, who died of a brain tumor when they were both nine years old. His experience with Linda was O’Brien’s first glimpse into the power of storytelling. After her death, he began to invent elaborate stories in which Linda was still alive. His dreams and his stories became his secret meeting place with his lost friend. He could bring Linda to life again by telling her story. He could make her real, make her smile and speak. In one of his dreams, the dead Linda likened herself to an old book on a library shelf that hadn’t been checked out for a long time. All she could do was wait for someone to check her out—for someone to tell her story and bring her to life again.
The authors of The Whole-Brain Child share this example to illustrate the importance of storytelling when it comes to healing: After nine-year-old Bella watched the toilet overflow when she flushed it, she developed anxiety about flushing. Bella’s father prompted her to retell what had happened the day the toilet overflowed. He began to outline the sequence of events, and he asked her to fill in details about what happened and how she had reacted. Every time Bella’s anxiety resurfaced, her father went through the story with her. Over time, this exercise helped Bella process what had happened, and her anxiety waned.
Stories grab attention. They can tell you how to act—and inspire you to act in the first place. They can put you in someone else’s shoes, making things real and relatable. Stories also have the power to heal as they let you process what happened and how it affected you. Whether a story is true or simply a fable, it can wield power. Once we understand the importance of storytelling, we’ll value—and use—it more and more in our lives.
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