Storytelling: Part 1

Why do we use a story when we rationalize? If the purpose of rationalization is to offer a face-saving device, simply listing a series of them seems sufficient. So why should we bother including a story?

A limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia was occupied by our human ancestors more than 40,000 years ago. Inside the cave is a 14.5-foot-wide image showing a tiny sticklike figure carrying spears and ropes. It appears to be hunting wild pigs and buffalo. This is probably the oldest pictorial record of storytelling discovered so far. This need to tell a story conveying culture, order, social norms, and other things seems to be part of the human experience.

Most of us have been listening to and telling stories for our whole lives. It helps us to communicate our thoughts, ideas, and day-to-day events to others around us. The stories help us put an order to the chaotic patterns and details of our existence. Each story we tell or hear helps us make emotional connections and shapes our perceptions of what is going on around us.

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Oral histories and stories have been used for thousands and thousands of years before the invention of writing. These oral histories help educate and preserve moral values and cultural norms of society. They help us see patterns in our lives where otherwise we would see none. Stories help us apply these patterns to other parts of our lives and provide the social cues for how they should be applied. These oral histories provide role models and ethical decisions to help us make the right choices as we apply them to future life lessons.

Changing Behavior through Stories

Interestingly, Adam Grant and Jane Dutton published a study in 2012 (“Beneficiary or Benefactor: Are People More Prosocial When They Reflect on Receiving or Giving?” in Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 9) where they asked university call-center fundraisers to write stories about themselves at the beginning of their shifts for four consecutive days. The participants were divided in two groups: one group wrote stories about times they’d been beneficiaries, while the other group wrote about being benefactors. Researchers wanted to see which condition would lead to the individuals being more generous by making more calls to alumni. They found that when the fundraisers wrote stories about being benefactors, they made more than 29 percent more phone calls hourly to alumni than they had before. So the stories they wrote led to meaningful behavioral changes as they identified with the positive giving identity.

So why does the brain love stories so much? Since we are social creatures, stories are an easy way to convey important information and values to others. Stories that are emotionally compelling engage more of the brain. Think about sitting in a movie theater watching a wonderful movie. The people around us disappear as we are fully engaged in the plot. It can instill laughter, sadness, or other emotions, which engage not only our minds but also our bodies. A story is also easier to remember than a list of facts or single ideas. Plus, we learn valuable lessons from the story that we can apply in the future.

Any story we decide to tell includes at least two key elements. Initially, the story must grab the listener’s attention and hold it. Then the story, like the movie, must drop the listener into that story’s world. And this is important: the two pieces work together. If we are not engaged, then we will not immerse into the world of the story. Then our attention begins to wander, and we move on to thinking about other things. But if we are able to hold our attention to the story, we do what researchers of narratives call “transportation.” That means that we are emotionally and physically resonating with the characters in the story and have entered their world. Once we’ve entered their world, we begin to empathize with their situation and physical efforts, matching our emotions to what we believe they are feeling. Clearly, the story we choose to tell must engage the listener, or it will have no effect on changing their behavior as they transport into the world of the story.

Over 150 years ago, Gustav Freytag described what he called the “dramatic arc” of storytelling, which some believe is the universal story structure. The beginning of the arc sets the stage and introduces the characters and locations. Next, action and tension increase as characters must overcome surprising difficulties. The tension reaches a climax where the heroes must draw deeply on themselves, perhaps more than they ever have before, to overcome the unexpected adversity. The tension resolves itself, and the action diminishes as the characters bring the crisis to a conclusion. This seems to be the basic structure of almost any movie or novel.

Pixar’s award-winning formula for their animated films emulates Gustav Freytag’s dramatic arc. The simple sentences convey the “spine” or central theme of the movie in a simple fashion. The actual origin of the “story spine” is in doubt, but it can be clearly identified in many works: “Once upon a time, there was _____. Every day, _____. One day, _____. Because of that,____. Because of that, _____. Until finally, _____. And ever since then, _____.” How many different movies can you think of where this simple formula created a story that captured your attention and drew you physically and emotionally into that world?

Once upon a time—this opening piece introduces the characters and setting. The listener needs enough information to understand the story that will follow but does not need extraneous information that will bog them down.

And every day—here, the characters’ daily routines are introduced. These routines may be good or bad, which is just the way it is for them. The situation could be one of wealth and privilege or having to scratch for every penny to pay the bills.

Until one day—something happens here that changes that routine in an instant. The characters find themselves out of balance; things have changed. This was Freytag’s increasing tension and action. This is generally triggered by a pivotal incident that launches the reason for the story.

And because of this—next, the main character (the hero) might go on a quest, or a character might face an ethical dilemma leading to unforeseen consequences.

And because of this—and then the hero must face consequences that were unforeseen when the quest began. This could entail a rags-to-riches or a riches-to-rags story line.

Until finally—in the climax of the story, the character must face the situation created by choices they made earlier.

And ever since that day—the moral of the story explains what these events meant to the characters and how they impacted the characters’ lives.

Telling Your Story

This is the outline for the story you want to convey to the listener. As you begin to fill in the details of the story, remember that the story should be simple, including only those details necessary to understand the context of the characters’ actions. Leaving the details vague allows the listener to fill in the gaps with things that they are comfortable with. For example, is it important to the story whether the main character is old or young, tall or short? Does it make a difference what type of car the main character purchased? If it makes a difference to the story, it should be included. Otherwise, we can let the listener fill in the details.

Rule number one is to keep the story simple. Include only those details that are necessary for the context and character development important to the story. Second, build the story to the educational level of the listener. Using fancy words may impress a captain of industry who understands them, but it will only confuse somebody who doesn’t have that educational level of understanding. Telling a story simply works well for everyone. Third, select a story that resonates with the listener. It should be within their experience and related to the background information you know about them. Trying to interest somebody in a story about knitting when they have no experience or interest in that topic will fail to capture their attention and emotions.

In our next column we will continue to discuss the importance of selecting a correct story and constructing it to capture the attention and emotions of the listener.

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