The irrational and absurd effectiveness of story telling

¨Telling stories works¨. As a scientist, I have heard that phrase too often from communicators and journalists, usually when doing an interview where they struggle to understand what it is what we did and why would someone care. And I always considered stories a soft ball, inferior to telling science as it is: the facts and only the [amazing] facts.

But consider this: humanity has only democratized reading and writing for a few centuries, decades even depending how and where you count[i]. Moreover, argumentative and factual narratives (like Science) have historically been the education of the few. Yet, humanity, every single one of us, has evolved for millennia to care about this form of communication. Today, we think that we want facts, but we primally crave stories. That is why when we are tired, we watch a movie, not a documentary. Many more people read narrative books than news or research articles. Our human minds crave stories, and we are suckers for good stories. But what is a good story? A Gossip? Something with violence? or sex? Something about someone? Is truth important? What is the minimal story that works?

See what you feel when you read these short but powerful stories:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

“We thought AI couldn’t do it, turns out it didn’t want to”

“Halley’s comet comes once in a human lifetime, and if you are reading this, you’ll probably never see it again.”

Before going into the hacks, pause and reflect on the absurdity of the following: Stories not only work, but they has also been proven[ii] the fastest and most effective and efficient way to hold our attention, create understanding and meaning in our minds, make us remember them for longer, and recall them more easily. Incredibly, our brain-body connection carries stories across those bridges: patients who use redemptive stories heal faster. Even if we know how powerful they are, or how defenseless we are to its power, we can’t resist its influence.

Language was created to tell stories. We told stories literally before history, even before we had language. We have used stories for at least 100.000 years, whereas [written] history only has 6.000 years. Anecdotally if you have had babies, you can see how they understand stories before they understand words. Babies also make up stories before they can understand logic, the predict based on a narrative they make up themselves[iii].

Facts need context, logical reasoning, and prior knowledge to get meaning, stories include meaning in themselves. Our brains in fact do not, and cannot, process all the sensory input it receives. Our brain has an unconscious storyteller that is constantly mixing a minimal sensory input with what it remembers, feels, projects, assumes, judges, …. and uses that story as the experience for what is to come. Kahneman called this “System 1”[iv]. You might even notice that we talk to ourselves in story mode. Only if we pay attention and focus on a specific input, we can strain the conscious mind to overrule the unconscious storyteller with our logic, and facts (“System 2”). Moreover, it is only when we learn to read, that we learn to have abstract non-story thoughts. (like silogism “if A then B, and if B then C, then If A then C” can only be understood by cultures who can read).

Most importantly, the inner story is a muscle that can be trained and shaped, but also gets harder and harder to rewrite as we age. It seems that around age 12 any major rewrite of our inner story gets almost impossible.

Boiling down the theories, and according to Kendall’s research, there are the features of our story-wired brain:

  1. Experience builds expectation. We are constantly expecting based on experience, and if we are correct, we lose interest. Conflict, struggle, surprise, fuel our attention.

  2. We assume that everything we experience is connected, everything has a pattern.

  3. Human minds demand meaning. We constantly try to make sense of what is happening. If a story deviates from the expectation, it sticks in our mind until we understand this new expectation as a new meaning to remember.

  4. Everyone has intent. Everything everyone does is a response to that intent. Intent is having a goal and a motive.

  5. Everything can and should be judged as soon as possible. We do not need, or want, to have all the facts before making up everyone’s intent, meaning or expectation of what is next.

  6. Every story is about someone. Characters must be the center of stories. If it is not a person, we project as if it is a person.

  7. We only care for as much as it matters to us. Bonus: Sensory input is the fastest way to connect with the reader and trigger recalls.

Moreover, stories bypass our attention and focus. They land in our mind without a filter. We are wired to be influenced by stories, even despite knowing it and avoiding it (i.e. listicles of myths are usually counterproductive if the myths are stories since we might remember the story more than they are myths).

Lastly, and most importantly, our unconscious story-wired mind does not seem to care much about truth. It is only our conscious mind, education and logic that can, with attention, evaluates and judges. Just think how natural and easy it is for kids to listen to stories with animals talking, or people flying. Think also how effective fake news and populist narratives are based on stories. Truth is a rational trait that comes with judgment, with effort, and our minds evolve to accept stories with as little judgment or attention as possible. This also means that memory and recall are mostly based on the intensity of the stories judged by the seven points above, not on the content, truthfulness or veracity of the story. We remember what we felt about the story more than we remember the details of the story, or if it was true or not.

So, based on all of this, what is then “a story”? A story is a detailed, character-based narration of their struggles and obstacles to reach their important goal. A Story must have 1) a character as its center, 2) an intent as the driver, 3) actions to achieve the character goal, 4) struggles and breaks of assumptions to keep our interest, and 5) details (sensory and narrative) all along to help create meaning and anchor memories. The natural end of a story happens when we have answered and understood all these.

These details alone should help you re-think already every piece of material you produce or read. Pay attention now to the traits above on the articles and books you read, on your own thoughts about life and people around you, anf what you choose to read or listen to. As an creator, Kendall suggest these other tricks:

  • Evoke prior knowledge in your story to aid comprehension, meaning and effectiveness. Even using words or concepts with baggage to transfer as much prior knowledge as possible. This also means making the story as relevant to the reader as possible. Prior knowledge helps the reader focus on the bits that are relevant, not trying instead to first create the context on which the story happens.

  • Sensory details are the fastest way to create recall triggers.

  • Specially in children everything can be thought better with stories. The author refers as example a study where 4th grade kids with poorest scores in grammar overperformed their most skilled peers with just 3 weeks of story-based grammar teaching.

  • Making the story structure explicit only helps encoding, recall and comprehension

 Now pause and think what you remember of the post you are reading… and see if you remember the little 3 one-sentence stories at the beginning of this chapter, or the ones at the beginning of this book. You probably do, and you probably don’t remember the lists of facts a couple of pages before.

Thank you for the interest reading this far!

This book is available for purchase on Amazon. You could also go there and give it a nice review ;)

For feedback: [email protected]

Version: V.8.9 © 2017-2023 Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño. This work is licensed under a 'Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License'.