The Power of the Well-Told Story

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On a visit to an Ontario classroom a few years ago, a 10 year old boy hung back after my session was over. Clutching a copy of my book Survivors, he waited until the room emptied.

“Is this story really true?” he asked. ‘Did everyone get out alive?”

He was referring to a story in the book about a tornado that had scooped up a baby then deposited her safely a hundred metres away.

“Yes,” I told him. “Amazing story, isn’t it?”

I was surprised by his interest and even more surprised by the concern he showed for people he knew only through a story.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stories have been a trusted commodity for millennia, so much so that they are almost part of our human DNA. Whether fictional or true, whether told orally, through the written word, or via film or television, stories hold our attention and engage us in unique ways.

Here are a few things we know from science and brain research:

Whole brain activity…

When we are told a story, read or see one, the whole brain goes to work. Contrast that to a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. With a straight-up factual delivery, the language processing portion of the brain is activated. Put the same information into story form, though, and other brain areas like the sensory cortex and motor cortex kick in as well. Told as a story, the message sticks.

Brain synch…

In a Princeton study researchers discovered that the brains of subjects listening to the same story underwent similar changes. Their brain activity synched or aligned. The subjects felt similar emotions and thoughts. For the duration of the story, they were connected and part of a larger community.

Personalized meaning…

Most stories have a pattern of cause and effect. Whenever we hear, see or read a story, we naturally want to relate it to our previous experiences. We associate joy, sadness, and other emotions in the story with previous experiences of joy, sadness, and these same emotions. In that way, the reader, listener, or viewer personalizes the story and turns it into their own.

Going back to the youngster I mentioned at the start, it’s little wonder he felt so strongly. He took the story I had written and essentially made it his own. He lived through the tornado, felt the same shock and surprise as the people in it, and then experienced the same relief at the end when all turned out okay.

Such is the power of story.  More than any other mode of communication, stories engage our emotions, stoke our imaginations, transcend cultural differences, and connect us in deep and meaningful ways.


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