“We humans have been storytellers since pre-history. It’s hardwired into us as deeply as being able to locate water is hardwired into a frog. Storytelling confers on us an evolutionary advantage. It must do otherwise it would have atrophied years ago with the tail and hairy palms. Storytelling is one of the few abilities that cuts us out from all the other animals.”
Jim Crace, Guardian Review, 05.03.05
We all recognise a good story. Stories are a fundamental part of how we exercise our imaginations, organise our own understanding of the world, and connect with other people. Storytelling is a universal, ancient artform, which we enjoy for its own sake.
Storytelling has evolved as an artform from its pre-historic beginnings, to epic oral poetry, to literary novels, to a global cinema industry, to TikTok micro-narratives, and will continue to change to fit whatever new incarnation is round the corner. Early twentieth century British novelist E.M. Forster claimed that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”
Both invented and fact-based stories have an interesting relationship with the truth; even pure fiction needs to feel truthful for the audience to suspend disbelief, and real experience must always be shaped creatively to be intelligible. As storytellers, we should not get bogged down in literal accuracy but rather refrain from dishonest distortions for manipulative ends whether we’re in a fictional or non-fictional mode. The seductive power of stories puts a moral obligation on us to communicate with integrity.
Storytelling has many pragmatic uses for those of us who have specific goals to achieve.
A story gives us an opportunity to shape our own reality as well as that of others. The storyteller is in charge of the world of the story, what happens to the characters, and why. In particular, when we tell stories about ourselves, we take control of our identity. A personal story can encourage listeners to form a positive view of the storyteller/hero or dispel superficial assumptions or casual labels. In some circumstances, it can help the storyteller evolve or reframe their own perspective of past events.
As a child, I learned a lot about my family background through stories that Mā, my great-grandmother, told me about her youth and childhood in Latvia. My mother’s family had been refugees from the Soviet Occupation in the 1950s when she was a just baby. During my childhood, Mā’s stories were the only way I could form a sense of that side of my history and identity when there was no way to visit the country of my heritage. She described her Riga apartment block and the little cat who pushed the plate covering the dish of herrings resting on the balcony, how she sang in all the church choirs across town – Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox. Mā’s stories made such a powerful impact on me that I when I did finally travel there with my family in 1991, I had the pictures in my imagination to match the sights in real life.
Personal stories have a crucial application for job interviews and other professional situations, such as pitching for venture capital. They are essential for the audience – employers or investors – to develop trust in an individual.
Advocacy for individuals and communities also needs champions that are good storytellers. This will often involve sharing the stories of other people, while perhaps adding your own response or interpretation so you can guide the audience to actions you want them to take. Lord Alf Dubs, a member of the House of Lords in the UK Parliament and Human Rights campaigner, uses a seemingly inexhaustible resource of stories to bring the challenges of child refugees to public attention. These stories are very varied in content. He doesn’t just focus on anecdotes such touching encounters with an 16-year-old Syrian boy in the Calais Jungle, but also comic tales of shares barbed conversations with former British Prime Minister Theresa May about quotas. He speaks minimally of his own experience, preferring to foreground others.
Journalists report stories, rather than fact sheets, for a good reason. The objective for them is to capture and hold the public’s attention. They know that the best way to do this is supply a narrative to what otherwise might be a baffling or complicated bunch of characters and events. While the best of them aim for high standards of impartiality, they know that that have to direct our interpretations.
If you are in a leadership role in an organisation or business, storytelling is a natural way to communicate if you want others to take away meaning from your experiences or to engage in your vision.
Traditionally, we look up to storytellers as bearers of wisdom. As a leader, you will need to earn the respect that goes with your hierarchical role. Taking on the status of the storyteller will help you demonstrate your humanity, and that you are a leader with the imagination to take people along a journey to a deeper understanding – or even to a future reality.
Storytelling is one of the best ways for creating rapport with your stakeholders. In fact, without rapport, you won’t be able to persuade others to shift from their own fixed agendas. A well-told story is a lot more memorable than a rational list of points. You can reach our hearts as well as our minds.