Chances are good that if you’re here, you tell stories all the time. If you don’t think you do, you might think differently in a moment.
Stories are, hands-down, the best way to communicate information in a way that’s engaging and relevant. Whether you’re trying to make friends at the bar or land that huge account, science proves the benefit of being a good storyteller.
Wired for the Narrative
Before we could print and bind books, the human race gathered around campfires to relate how we killed that lion, or how an unexpected turn in our daily walk led to a new patch of berries. Hearing about someone else’s actions and descriptions lights up our brain in a way that naked facts can’t (more info here if you’re interested). A full narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. When we recognize the beginning of a narrative, our brains jump on board. If the storyteller advances the narrative in a competent, coherent fashion, we’ll stick with him/her to the end.
I wrote two introductory posts for this blog. One is a brief hello and what I intend for the future of this blog. The other is a story about how I came to be here, and the transition I’ll be making toward more serious writing. Which one’s more compelling? In the first one, Ellis is yet another hopeful would-be author/blogger who wants to do the author/blogger thing- whatever. In the second, Ellis is presenting her unique history and baring large, bloody chunks of her heart (eww- she should probably put those back).
Stories humanize the storyteller. He/She becomes interesting and relatable, rather than a spewer of words I should probably pay attention to, but… ugh, if this is all in the PowerPoint, I’m just gonna read that.
See the Hidden Stories
Salesmen, marketers, propagandists, and politicians already know how well humans respond to stories. They spin profound tales to influence your behavior, oftentimes without it being explicit. Many of the most infamous ads ever made tell stories- about the noble savage who mourns the destruction of America’s landscape; about an innocent girl vaporized in nuclear holocaust, because her parents voted for Barry Goldwater. Think of the puppy who grows up before our eyes, strong and happy, on the right dog food; or the family Christmas that isn’t complete until a gift-wrapped luxury automobile rolls down the snow-covered driveway. (The story ends before the years of crushing car payments begin.)
It isn’t all cynical, though. Consider customer testimonials and product reviews. Someone tries something, has a positive or negative experience, and relates his/her story. Sure, it’s nice to get a description of features from a manufacturer, but we feel much better about buying or passing when informed with the experience of others.
It’s Your Turn
What about you, storyteller? How can/have you put stories to work in your own life? Blog posts, presentations, lectures- they’re all more effective when information is presented as a narrative. Real-life examples are doubly good for showing how concepts shake out in the wild. But hey, if you can’t provide the real deal, fiction sells too. Here’s how far too many Computer Science lectures start:
“Today we’re going to talk about queues, a very important data type.”
You can already feel yourself slumping in your chair. Out comes your smartphone for some serious Angry Birding.
How could we make this better? Wake up those eager young minds with a story.
“Our friend Bob just got hired at one of ConMusicCo’s brick and mortar stores. He’s working in the IT department, but had to spend a few days on the storeroom floor for orientation. The one thing that stuck with him was all the grumbling customers standing in huge checkout lines. The store has five cashier lanes and room to add more, but management’s reluctant to do so, claiming customer wait times aren’t a problem…”
You’re just dying to know how Bob comes to the rescue with his amazing programming powers, aren’t you? OK, so it’s not “Who shot JR” levels of suspense, but it beats the heck out of learning about queues in a vacuum. It’s even more engaging if the lecturer involves the students in telling the story. They can work together to help Bob build a software program to model customer wait times with and without additional checkout lanes. By the end, management gets a clue, the story has a happy ending, and the students have an idea of the queue datatype’s advantages and limitations.
Storytelling isn’t just for word-jockeys with their heads in the clouds (like me). We all respond to stories, we all tell them. People who are really good at it deserve respect. Applied in the right ways and times, their powers can comfort, inspire generations, or change the course of history. If you’re only an occasional dabbler, get better at recognizing and telling stories. It could make a huge difference to your career, wallet, and life in general.
Feel free to comment and introduce yourself. What kind of stories do you tell?