Science examines the power of story

Stories make such a difference to any speech or presentation.

Stories are how – growing up – we learned to live and behave. It’s through story that people down the ages learned to live, how they got their values, their sense of belonging, their sense of relationships. Story is how they got their blueprint for life.

But something odd happens when we pass beyond childhood. A lot of us abandon stories. Instead, we place our faith in facts and figures, in statistics, in information.

But these days information isn’t an asset. Information is a problem. We’re drowning in it. We don’t need more information.

What we do need is some help to make sense of all this information, something that organizes the information, puts it into context, makes it memorable, and helps us make sense of our world.

So why is story the answer? Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories?

That was the starting point for research by science correspondent Jeremy Hsu for Scientific American. Hsu argues that our love for telling tales and listening to good yarns reveals a lot about the workings of the mind.

Hsu writes: “How do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?” He believes the answers may be rooted in our history as a social animal. Stories help us keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.

Hsu says a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism—recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.

Hsu says the best stories do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call ‘narrative transport.’

Psychologists are still delving into this idea of narrative transport. While we await their findings, we just need to remember that story touches us all, regardless of age, gender or culture.

And – as speakers and communicators – that’s all we seek to do.