The Power of Storytelling: Communicating with Impact

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I am fascinated by storytelling. I am a Moth podcast junkie and am a regular at story slams around Boston. Something about hearing other people’s stories helps me place my own experiences within a meaningful context. They have the power to help me empathize with other people’s perspectives. They can inspire and teach me.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on why storytelling holds such power. In a three-part series on Fast Company, Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Mariner Books, 2013), talks about the ubiquitous, powerful nature of stories and their influence on us and our culture. He begins by illustrating how storytelling infiltrates many aspects of our human experience:  

"Humans live in a storm of stories. We live in stories all day long, and dream in stories all night long. We communicate through stories and learn from them. We collapse gratefully into stories after a long day at work. Without personal life stories to organize our experience, our own lives would lack coherence and meaning."

Storytelling isn’t new. As a social and cultural activity, storytelling predates writing and began as an oral tradition. It is a distinctly human endeavor that serves to share and interpret experiences, teach, and entertain. We are drawn to stories for a good reason. Turns out, we are wired for it. “Stories powerfully hook and hold human attention because, at a brain level, whatever is happening in a story is happening to us and not just them,” Gottschall writes. You see our desire to tell and consume stories in our love of television, movies, and books as well as our fascination with social media. Telling stories shapes how we interact with others not to mention well-constructed narratives are often behind compelling initiatives in advertising, business, and journalism.

Storytelling is woven throughout all aspects of our media and culture and is evolving as we do. With the digital era, we are also seeing our increased ability to participate in and have an effect on the stories being told.  Though the exact extent to how much media can change our society and vice versa is still unknown, storytelling's capacity for creating empathy and shifting cultural attitudes is an interesting phenomenon to look at. While trying to convince somebody to change a belief is largely ineffective, telling them a story with characters they can empathize with can be more persuasive. For example, Gottschall argues that social scientists believe that storytelling might have had an impact on shifting American attitudes on homosexuality over the past 15 years with television shows such as Will & Grace, Glee, and Modern Family. That's some powerful stuff!

With storytelling being such a huge part of the way we consume media, teach, and learn, I suspect we will continue to talk and hear a lot about storytelling in the coming years. Want to learn more? Gottschall’s interesting three-part series on storytelling is available to read here:

The Science of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts Through Distraction Like Nothing Else

Infecting an Audience: Why Great Stories Spread

Story 2.0: The Surprising Thing About the Next Wave of Narrative

How has storytelling impacted your life? Have you changed a perspective on something because of a well-told story? How do you think storytelling will evolve in the future? Feel free to share your thoughts below!