The importance of storytelling

The importance of storytelling

February 6, 2019 4 By Rick

Everyone loves a good story, but not everyone can tell a good story. Storytelling is one of the oldest known aspects of human culture. From the very first Aboriginal songs and cave paintings, stories have built bridges across different cultures, areas of the world and time. Storytelling in all its forms has been an essential aspect of communication. Stories connect us to each other in profound and moving ways. But are we (and more importantly, our children) losing this crucial art that can help foster understanding and empathy between different peoples? Are we neglecting to teach our children how telling stories can help them remember things – especially facts and statistics – better?

Storytelling for children and students

There’s a reason why we should bring this back into school curriculums. “Our brains have a natural affinity for narrative construction,” science journalist Benedict Carey wrote in New York Times Magazine. “People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.” According to Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, students perform much better after listening to a story instead of speeches that used facts.

Aaker’s experiment involved students giving one-minute pitches in her class. “Only one in 10 told a story while the rest used facts and figures. Afterward, just 5% could recite a statistic while 63% remembered the story,” Aaker said. “Research shows our brains are not hard-wired to understand logic or retain facts for very long. Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories,” Aaker says. “A story is a journey that moves the listener, and when the listener goes on that journey, they feel different and the result is persuasion and sometimes action.”

A bet with my class

When I was teaching a course in study habits to high-school students in the U.S., I used storytelling to drive home a lesson. I wrote a list of 25 random completely unrelated words on the blackboard. I then made the class a bet that I could teach anyone (they got to choose who) to learn that list so well that they could recite it correctly backward, forward or even start anywhere in the list and recite it correctly in either direction. I just asked that they give me a maximum of 20 minutes. The deal was that if I succeeded in teaching the student they selected, they would give me their undivided attention for the rest of the course. If I didn’t, they would have no homework during the course. Boy, did I have loads of takers! I asked the student to write a story using the words in the order of the list and then to recite it over and over. I said the story could be as crazy as he wanted because it was his story. Bottom line, I won. And, more importantly, I won their undivided attention.

Storytelling for leaders

I think that storytelling is one of the most important things we have created. It’s a fantastic tool that is underutilized. Storytelling, in some form or another, forms the foundation for almost everything in our society. You can use storytelling to pitch a project or a product; to give a successful speech, or to brighten up people’s lives. Storytelling is becoming recognized as a useful weapon in a leader’s toolkit. That’s why Microsoft, Motorola, Procter & Gamble and the World Bank are teaching storytelling skills to their leaders. Why are stories important for leaders? Because stories bind groups together. They give us culture “touch-points.” Why is telling stories important in larger groups? It’s all about the numbers.

In the 1990s, British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar used the size of the pre-frontal cortex of a species’ brain to calculate the size of its social group size, i.e., “the maximum social group size for a given species,” which became known as the Dunbar Number. For humans, that number is 150, according to Dunbar’s calculations.

The Dunbar Number

In his research, he observed some exciting facts about the number 150. For example, 150 was the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village; the splitting point of religious sect settlements; the basic unit size of professional Roman armies and 16th-century mercenary groups; and the size generally considered appropriate for a modern military Company. He also observed that many factories were set up for a maximum of 150 workers because any number greater than 150 caused teamwork to drop off and productivity to decline. So, what does all this mean? According to Dunbar, “150 was the largest group in which we can understand human politics.” This seems to be the point where team leadership and organizational leadership intersect, i.e., “the point at which you can no longer recognize the face of every person you lead.” And if you can’t remember people, you can’t be in touch with them. People who lead teams must know everyone in their group well to be successful. Leading a large organization requires a different type of leadership. And that’s where storytelling becomes a vital tool.

Leaders of large organizations use stories in groups larger than 150. Stories give us meaning and explain values. They help define who we are. You know everyone and know what’s going on in small groups, but not in large groups. In large groups, you learn what’s happened by hearing stories. Anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes culture as “… the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.” While this is important if you are leading at any level, it’s especially important when the organization is larger than 150. According to Geertz, “if you’re trying to create a culture you can do it by the actions you take – but only for your closest 150 people. Beyond that, stories are the medium through which meaning and culture flow around a group.”

Only the strongest survive

According to Yannis Gabriel, author of Storytelling in Organizations, “stories compete against each other, and only the strongest survive in the narrative jungle. The stories that survive are often those that reinforce our biases. If you want stories to convey meaning that’s important to your group, you’ll need to continually reinforce them.” When you’re retelling stories, remember that storytelling is compelling, so be aware of the message you’re choosing to reinforce. Think about this the next time you tell a story.

Storytelling for everyone

We need to devote more time to learning how to tell stories. It can help us in school, business and our personal lives. It’s a skill that many people don’t have anymore because we no longer learn storytelling formally or informally from the people around us who were good at it. And that’s why we should teach it in school, starting as early as possible. If you still don’t believe me, the earlier-cited Stanford University studies that focused on teaching and presenting facts found that statistics combined with stories have a retention rate of 65–70%. That’s just flat out awesome! Shouldn’t we be teaching storytelling in schools and at home? Don’t we owe that to our children?