The Power of Storytelling

Hello, Alex here! I’m commandeering the blog this month to speak directly to our readers about a topic that is very close to my heart and a tool that is absolutely crucial to any leader: the act of storytelling.

For those of us who are politically engaged, these are head-spinning times. We’re having public discussions about power and equality, and making space for voices that were once silent or ignored. 

For every event, there are dozens of very different, often incompatible, interpretations and hot takes. Different factions are fighting to “control the narrative” and sway public opinion to their side.

As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way stories are told and what powerful tools they can be – for better or for worse.

The media we choose to consume influences which of these narratives we hear, see, read and believe.  Social media compounds the problem. Apps like Facebook and Twitter are designed to show us more of what we like and less of what we don’t, so people miss out on different perspectives. 

It makes me think of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, in which she warns about the pitfalls of relying on limited perspectives.

As a child growing up in Nova Scotia, my personal and moral development was shaped by books like Anne of Green Gables and fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast.  I learned about my province’s Indigenous heritage through tales of the Mi’kmaq’s Creator figure, Glooscap. And my cultural identity was cemented by songs like Stan Rogers’ Bluenose

As I got older I learned new stories, including the stories of people whose lives were very different from my own. I began to see the biases hidden in many of the stories I had grown to believe. 

It was shocking to realize how we swim in a sea of stories from the moment we’re born. Some of them are so pervasive that we don’t even recognize them as stories – we call them “facts”.

These stories can be used to manipulate us, or they can help make us better people. As leaders and change makers, we have the power to use storytelling as a force for good.

Stories make a difference through a process called Narrative Transportation. This is when a story takes you out of the present moment and immerses you in the world that the storyteller is creating. You let your guard down and accept the story’s reality - whether that means fairy godmothers, friendly ghosts, or schools of witchcraft and wizardry. 

Although narrative transportation is temporary - it ends when the story does - it has a longer-term impact on our brains. It makes us more likely to adopt attitudes that are consistent with the story, and less likely to think of counter-arguments than if someone simply stated their opinion.

So how do you achieve this magical effect? To begin with, in order to transport an audience you need to know a few things about them. Here are three things I try to consider when creating a story for a specific audience:

1) How do the listeners see themselves?

An audience becomes more invested in a story when they identify with a character. 

The popular British sci-fi series Doctor Who has used the principle of audience identification for more than 50 years. “The Doctor” is a very old, super-intelligent, time-travelling alien - a character than can be a bit…well…alienating for earthling viewers. But the Doctor always has a human companion who provides a familiar perspective and allows the average westerner to see herself as part of the story. By sharing the goals and viewpoints of a character, the audience builds an emotional connection with the story and becomes more invested in its outcome.

Whether you’re telling the story of your life, your business or your world-changing initiative, ask yourself how that story relates to the audience. What do they want to accomplish, what is standing in their way, and how can they be part of this big adventure? Tap into those feelings and desires, and you’ll be well on your way to transporting your listeners.

2) How could this story be interpreted differently?

 If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching the news lately, it’s that two people can look at the same facts and walk away with very different interpretations. That’s why a storyteller needs to be sensitive to the audience’s existing beliefs, values and points of reference.

In my 2nd-year anthropology class we read Shakespeare in the Bush, about a researcher who told the story of Hamlet to a group of Tiv Elders in West Africa. The Tiv culture did not share the British concepts of ghosts, madness and betrayal, so the Elders reached a very different interpretation of the classic story.

There’s an important lesson here for storytellers, who use carefully-chosen details to evoke certain feelings and ideas. For example, the presence of a ghost tells a Canadian audience that this is a scary story and is probably about something bad that happened in the past. On the other hand, in a culture without a concept of “ghost” an apparition might have a very different meaning – or it might just confuse the audience and prevent narrative transportation.

You don’t have to travel halfway across the world, or even halfway down your block, to find someone who interprets life differently than you do. I’m reminded of this every time I watch the news with my father. Our very different political views often lead us to very different takes on a single story.

How can you make sure that you story is hitting the right notes with your audience? First, listen to them. If you can, explore the media that they prefer to consume. Get to know how they see the world, and use that as your starting point. 

3) Understand the science of storytelling

Our brains create emotions through hormones like dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Different storytelling techniques activate these hormones and take the audience on an emotional journey. A good storyteller uses suspense, vulnerability, humour and other techniques to transport the audience and get them emotionally invested in the storyteller’s point of view.

This TEDx talk by David JP Phillips is a great introduction to the science of storytelling and how to use those juicy brain chemicals to make your audience feel the way you want to make them feel: focussed, motivated, generous, trusting, empathetic, creative, relaxed.

If you want to be a better storyteller, experiment with these techniques. Try to give your audience the empowered, positive feelings that will help them change their lives and the world.

At Spice! Leadership, we believe that the world needs more people telling better stories. We need stories that reflect diverse experiences and that make our communities healthier and more inclusive. Go tell those stories.

Have a story that’s begging to be shared? We want to hear from you. Want to dig deeper into the world of storytelling? Check out our Tell Your Story workshop, premiering on October 18, 2018.