There is an underlying common thread behind the unprecedented box-office successes of J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens and most recently The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by outstanding director Alejandro González Iñárritu. They both are magnificent artistic cinematic renditions, but, above all, they are masterpieces of storytelling. If there is something that all humans could agree on—regardless of time, place, historical context, gender, age, race, religion, or any other categorization—it is that we all are suckers for well-told stories!
Stories have a powerful effect on us. It is like our brains are hard-wired in a primal way to focus all of our attention whenever a captivating story is being told. Stories have the power to transport us to worlds, times, and spaces that only the human mind can create. Why is it that stories are so captivating? And, why do we feel more motivated or inspired to do something, even change our behavior, after listening to a moving story? Why is it that clear, well-researched, and rock-solid facts do not have the same effect? After doing some digging on this topic, I share with you some of the reasons in favor of stories I find quite compelling:
1. Facts are important, but they are limited in influencing people.
Most of the time, facts must be “pushed” on to the listener, often setting up an antagonistic conversation. We all have been there: the unavoidable condescending feeling of being told what to do or change. On the other hand, well-delivered storytelling “pulls,” coaxes, and even disarms, listeners into imagining outcomes toward which just facts would not lead them.
2. Stories make your audience less resistant to experimentation and change.
In situations when you must convey meaning and make sense of chaotic, dramatic events, storytelling is the best way to establish rapport with us, the listeners, and you, the bearer of the news. That is because stories flip a switch in most of us that can bring us back to a childlike open-mindedness. You might have experienced the feeling: As soon as we hear words like “once upon a time…” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” the judgmental doors of our left brains quickly swing closed, and the doors of our right brains—always eager to hear life turned into a story—swing open.
3. Stories engage listeners as participants, rather than spectators.
A well-delivered story invites the audience to join you in the experience, co-create the story with you, and grow together from it. Stories coax listeners into colluding with you to find meaning, no matter how fantastic or fanciful the story may sound. We can actually visualize ourselves acting on the mental stage that you, the storyteller, has set up.
4. In a business context, stories are key to establishing and sustaining company cultures.
For example, you can use stories to stress fundamental values like integrity, respect, service, and excellence. Whenever we face a fork in the road that represents an ethical dilemma, relevant stories could help us to recalibrate our bearings in the right direction. It should not be that difficult to find tales of extraordinary customer service experiences, empathy, and kindness in your own organization; just pay attention and you’ll find the stories that really matter. These stories can be a source of guidance, inspiration, and motivation for employees and leaders about how to act toward customers, vendors, and each other.
5. Stories allow humans to engage in large-scale collaborative enterprises.
We are social creatures and wired to use empathy to quickly determine if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe. It is a natural neural mechanism called emotional simulation. It is there to keep us safe, but also to rapidly form bonds and relationships with a variety of other humans. By getting to know someone else’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed. That kind of natural story sharing allows large groups of individuals to cooperate and collaborate together in massive endeavors like building huge bridges, electing a president, constructing large airplanes, and even sending humans into space.
The What & Why
• Stories are more effective than facts when persuading individuals to take action or adopt change.
• Stories reduce resistance and open the mind of the listener to new possibilities.
• Effective storytelling engages the audience into the story as actors, not simply listeners.
• Stories can help organizations establish and enhance a positive culture.
• Shared stories can quickly bond a large number of individuals to work together and accomplish more.
• Storytelling leverages our natural ability to simulate emotional scenarios.
In your experience, what makes one story more effective than another? Also, why do you think some people respond to a story while others do not? Have you ever created and delivered a highly engaging story? Is there a story that had a most profound impact on you? Please leave a comment; I would like to hear from you. I hope the second part of this informal research may provide some answers to these questions along with some tips to create compelling and engaging stories. Until then, “… may the force be with you.” Cheers!