Once upon a time, a young teenager received an orange in her stocking at Christmas and was elated beyond belief. That teenager who showed gratitude for a sweet ripe piece of fruit on a cherished day of the year was my grandmother, a first generation immigrant who had lost both her parents and was barely scraping by under the care of her older sister. In times when I feel irritated by little things like that the store is out of my favorite flavor of Noosa yogurt, I pause and think about the appreciation my grandmother felt for an orange and it helps me put things in perspective.
That is a simple story, but it contains a number of elements that makes stories appealing to humans including a hero, a struggle, and a moral. In the last number of years the story has come into vogue as research points to the genre as an effective means of sharing information in business.
“. . .our stories carry emotion that connects us with people and drives a point deeper and deeper into our psyche.” This quote comes from Dianna Booher in an article titled, 7 Tips For Great Storytelling As A Leader.
The structure of a story is familiar to humans and depicted in the Freytag Diagram created by the 19th Century German scholar.
These identifiable pieces of a story move in a sequence from beginning to end.
1. Exposition or Introduction presents the setting (time and place), characters (protagonist – hero/heroine, antagonist – villain), and the basic conflict.
2. Rising Action is where the basic conflict is brewing and there is tension associated with this conflict.
3. Climax is the turning point with a change either for the better or for the worse in the protagonist’s situation.
4. Falling Action is a reversal where the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist begins to resolve. Then the protagonist either wins or loses to the antagonist.
5. Conclusion is the end of the story, which is sometimes called dénouement, where there is a resolution one way or another and the characters move on.
Another way to look at stories is through the perspective of the hero’s journey. In Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, the author uses the hero’s journey as a basis for how organizations can generate truthful interesting stories.
Using this framework, Sachs places the story listener as the hero and the organization in the mentor and storyteller role. The hero is not a helpless consumer, but rather an activist pursuing higher-level values. The mentor is to help the hero in pursuing those values. The journey is about the hero, not the storyteller.
Unskillful storytelling – that we see and hear all the time – is about the storyteller as the hero. This model upends that, puts story consumer as hero.
This has significant implications for organizations telling their stories – shifting from the ‘excellent product/service’ view to the ‘here’s how we help you’ perspective.
Another book, Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, focuses on why storytelling is a fundamental human animal instinct. Our ancestors listened to stories around a campfire, because if they didn’t they got eaten by lions. In an evolutionary sense, humans are designed to assimilate information in stories – it is part of survival. Stories help us deal with the human condition on every level and are, therefore, integral parts of being human. Gottschall wrote a recent article, Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon in which he outlined the work of psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock that showed that people absorbed in story drop their intellectual guard and process information emotionally such that they are unable to detect false notes or inaccuracies.
Research highlighted in the New York Times article, Your Brain on Fiction, has shown the brain is affected by story telling in ways that make it ‘experience’ and remember information. When just receiving facts, only the languages processing part of the brain is activated (Broca’s area & Wernick’s area), but with story telling more areas get activated. A 2006 Neuroimaging study in Spain showed when users read words with strong odor associations, the olfactory cortex lit up. In 2012, Brain & Language published study from Emory University when people read metaphors involving texture, the sensory cortex responsible for touch lit up. Laboratory of Language Dynamics showed the same when people read sentences about movement – the exact part of the motor cortex responsible for the limb movement lit up. Research out of Princeton published in 2010, showed Neural coupling between the storyteller and receiver such that the receiver’s brain appeared that it turns story into perceived own experience.
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated . . .. the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing . . .” Your Brain on Fiction