We all remember a good story. It’s what makes storytelling one of the most powerful ways to lead and motivate people. Stories allow us to make sense of an increasingly complicated world by providing meaning to otherwise random acts. We create this meaning through what we refer to as “cause-effect”. The idea of cause-effect is that we are inclined to consider one event the result of another, even when the events occur in isolation.
How Stories Affect Our Perception of Events
Consider three isolated events occurring at the same place around the same time. The events are a woman crying, a restaurant advertising that it is soon to be closing down, and finding a hair in our sandwich. It doesn’t matter if these events have nothing to do with one another. If they all happen at the same place close to the same time, the likelihood is we’ll fuse them together.
The problem is there are countless interpretations we can collect from the events based on the details we see, the details we miss, and the biases we bring with us.
Let’s look solely at how order affects the story. If the events above happened in the order of finding a hair, restaurant closing, woman crying. We may assume the health department is closing down the restaurant for hygiene concerns, and the woman is the owner grieving her losses.
If the events occurred as woman crying, finding a hair, store closing. We may assume the woman was an upset staff member who deliberately sabotaged food until eventually the restaurant was shut down.
And if the events occurred as restaurant closing, finding a hair, woman crying. We may assume the restaurant staff became lapse with their hygiene in response to the restaurant soon closing. In this case, we may consider the woman crying to be an upset customer.
The point is we are able to build numerous conflicting stories from the same events depending solely on their order of occurrence. Add to this our biases. For instance, if we had an aunt who once lost a restaurant, or if we once worked in a kitchen with a chef with poor hygiene. We’re more than likely to let these experiences effect our perceptions of the events despite having nothing to do with them. Then there are all the details we missed, and all the details we chose to ignore in order to keep our story intact.
This is the power of storytelling. We want so badly for everything to make sense, and for events to play out the way we’ve seen them play out time and time again, that we become susceptible to abandoning the truth. This is the first reason we’re addicted to stories – because they keep things simple and predictable.
How Stories Affect Our Brains
The second reason we find stories so compelling is because when we recreate a story in our head we unlock a part of the brain called the insula. This is the part of the brain responsible for experiencing pain, sorrow, happiness etc. The insula draws on previous memories to provide new feelings. For instance, a sad story set in European village will remind us of a sad time we spent in a European village. If we’ve never spent time in a European village, we will recall the emotion we felt while reading a book or watching a film set in a European village.
When we share this experience with others we encourage their brain to go to a very similar place to ours. Each detail we describe unlocks a genuine memory in the mind of the listener. The result is that both storyteller and listener are transported to a similar place both emotionally and imaginatively.
As opposed to watching a power point presentation, which does nothing more than trigger the part of our brain responsible for language. Stories trigger the parts of our brain responsible for absorbing real experiences. When delicious food is described, our sensory cortex lights up. When we describe catching a ball, our motor cortex lights up. In essence, a story puts our whole brain to work. And when we share stories with others our brains go to work in sync.
This is why every influential talk, every engaging conversation, and every memorable lesson we recall includes a story. Because we are wired to listen and act based on stories.
So the next time you are struggling to get people onboard with your ideas, simply tell a story where the outcome is that which you require of the audience.
Carl Jung, Memories Dreams Reflections