Monthly Archives: December 2014

Why Stories Work

A few weeks ago I met with a group who had been getting together once a month for the past year to study leadership. My topic — storytelling. After a dinner filled with richly detailed and delightfully funny stories, the evening session began. I heard these nervous comments: “I’m not a good story teller.” “I don’t have any stories.” “I never tell stories.”

We have been telling stories ever since our beginnings around the camp fire. Someone might tell a story about how the hunt went or where to gather food. Stories kept traditions alive and helped make sense of the natural world.

Today we are overwhelmed with stories from news, sports, business and entertainment. Facebook is an endlessly fascinating forum of mini-stories. We tell and re-tell the stories of movies and plays.

I’m curious about why stories work. Every time we hear a story or share a story, the gap that separates us from each other seems to lessen. Why is this so? What is it that diminishes the distance between your self and my self?

One theory of how people receive information divides our mental processing into three areas: ear, eye, body. For example, the musician who hears a piece of music in order to play it is using the aural center. The musician who reads music is processing the notes though the visual center. The musician who feels her fingers on the keys is focused on the kinaesthetic experience.

A story wakes up all three modes. The sound of the words activates the aural receptors. Visual processing comes alive when a storyteller paints a picture with images. When a speaker uses gesture, the listener experiences the story physically.

This happens because our mirror neurons are firing. Mirror neurons are the brain synapses that help us feel what others are feeling. They do this by mimicking movement that the eyes sees. Sometime your body actually moves, sometime the movement is only in your brain. You have experienced this at the theater. You know you are sitting in a seat. If the actors are doing their jobs well, you soon forget that. You begin to experience the action of the play as if you were on stage yourself. A story is literally felt by the listener in the same way.

Neuroscientists are also now discovering that we have other brains, not just the ones in our heads. Our other brains, the ones in our guts and hearts, are directly affected by hearing a powerful story. We feel where the story touches us before calling upon our head brains to make sense of it. When television journalist Bill Moyers asked the renowned scholar Joseph Campbell, “Why does it seem that these stories tell me what I know inside is true,” Campbell replied, “You’ve got the same body, with the same organs and energies, that Cro-Magnon man had thirty thousand years ago…. The brain is one of the organs.”*

If the purpose of leadership is to help people work together in times of uncertainty, stories are essential. By revealing ourselves through a story, we let our listeners know that we have experienced what they are going through. “In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives,” writes Marshall Ganz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

We might feel vulnerable or exposed when we share a personal story. Yet when we speak specifically and personally, our listeners respond with embodied cognition, a physical and emotional understanding of our common human experience. We aren’t stuck in the left-brain’s analytical abstraction. “A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts,” continues Ganz.**

Back to the leadership group. I asked the person who seemed most terrified to come to the front of the room to share her story. She was shaking. She clutched her hands in front her. Her eyes, which were filling with tears, avoided the audience. I asked her to look directly into others’ eyes. I helped her release her hands so she could use gestures. I encouraged her to play with the voice and words of the characters. She began to re-experience the details of the story. As the story filled her, she filled the room.

This is an excerpt of the e-mail I received from her a few days later:

I started my presentation out away from the podium and my comfort zone, hands at my side, making eye contact.  And I shared a story (complete with gestures and voices) about my family that related to the topic I was presenting.  I made a connection – it was a topic that is normally hard to get people to connect with and I was able to do it because I brought it down to simple life terms – using a story.
And throughout the presentation, I talked in stories instead of my usual method of talking about processes and technical jargon.  At one point I shared a little anecdote from my ride up there that related to a point I was trying to make, and the entire room laughed out loud!!  That has never happened!

As I talked with people after my presentation here’s what I heard: “You’re my kind of people – I really appreciate how you helped me understand the issue by relating it to your family and kids.” Nancy, this cannot be ME they are describing.  ME?  The awful storyteller?

The connection that storytelling makes is not just one of words, ideas or facts. It’s a deeper connection, one that works on both the storyteller and the listener. It awakens our senses, our bodies, and our hearts. No matter who we are, or what we do for a living, we long for that kind of engagement. We want to experience, to feel, to laugh, to cry, and perhaps even be inspired to change our behaviors, manage our losses, or see the world through a different lens.

*Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. 37 – 39.

**Ganz, Marshall. “Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change.” Sojourners: 2008.