During a ‘pitch’, a presentation or a lecture around 5% of people remember statistics, 63% remember the story, if one is offered. Listening to statistics ‘lights up’ the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas; the language process areas in your brain that are at work now to turn my words into meaningful information. The rest of your brain, those parts waiting for the story, stays dark. I haven’t engaged you. I’ve shut down most of your compassionate, creative and intuitive abilities. I’ve taken you to the ‘I’d like to switch off and go home now’ point.
Had I started with: let me tell you about a girl who served Baba Yaga and live to carry fire back to her own darkened hearth, your brain would look like Sydney Harbour on New Years Eve. If we could see inside our heads, when someone tells us a story, it would look like fireworks. All the brain areas we would use, if we were living through the events of the story, would be lit up. We viscerally, so instinctively and intuitively, live through the heroine’s experience of joy, sorrow, fear, courage and compassion. We would viscerally experience the walk through the dark woods, sorting the black ergot out of Baba Yaga’s corn and carrying the fire filled skull back to our own house. We would exercise our imagination while the story is told and for as long as it continues to live in our memory. We would learn, in a subtle way, while we listen, just as the heroine is learning new skills while she is living through the events of the story and we would ponder the metaphor of the fire filled skull and what it means for us.
Stories put our whole brain to work and stimulate us as a whole person. The effect of storytelling is so powerful that we can measure changes in our brain chemistry, our heart rate and our skin temperature before and after a storytelling.
How does storytelling relate to creating change? According to Cara Mertes ‘Changing the world is a team sport’. Where do we find the magic wand that puts everyone on the same page? The best way to connect people with great ideas and positive change is to tell them a story. I spoke above about how stories allow us to viscerally experience other people’s worlds, how by doing so stories subtly change the way our brains work. Storytelling is something we share in families, groups, teams and communities. Sharing stories synchronises our brain activity. When we hear a story as a couple, a family, a business team or a community our brains harmonise through the storytelling. That means, if we receive an idea through storytelling, we get inside the idea together. Just as an orchestra, when it synchronises the individual skills and instruments to interpret the idea of the symphony, creates a whole, a moving piece of music, in which everyone has a part.
Storytelling is our magic wand. When we synchronise our minds through a story, we feel the idea together as if we were experiencing it in real life. The story and the idea become ours. Storytelling is the most effective and ethical way to plant ideas into our fertile minds, because the brain areas we activated through storytelling are those we use to understand others and to feel compassion. In folktale heroines and heroes we find role models who create better lives for themselves and whole communities. They think outside the square, they find courage in desperate situations, they recognise allies no matter what outer shape or appearance they may have, and they act with compassion, originality and a sense of humour. Folktales, through their archetypes, metaphors and motifs, inspire and empower us to re-organise our thinking, re-interpret our experiences and act with integrity and a greater sense of humanity.
If changing the world is a team sport, stories ignite the fire in our skulls and storytelling is the magic wand we can use to build our teams and work together. Storytelling provokes imagination, rewards us with new and better ways that are not unrealistic, according to Kay Stone, ‘not dreams … but observations and aspirations for the world as we live in it now’. Seeing our lives in the framework of story increases clarity and awareness, helps us bind the isolated, the disconnected, the fragmented into something meaningful and rewards us with imagination, inspiration and intuition. Storytelling inspires personal development and healthier communities.