Why Storytelling Works: Science & History

May 14, 2019
Why Storytelling Works: Science & History

We often hear that we should tell more stories, but have you ever thought about why storytelling works? What is it about storytelling that makes it such an effective form of communication? Why does it work in business, and especially in sales?

To explain why storytelling works, I’d like to talk about both the science and history of storytelling. Let’s jump in!

Why Storytelling Works: Science

The first reason why storytelling works so well is actually based on neuroscience.

As scientists have been better able to track brain activity, they’ve uncovered a surprising fact.

It’s long been known that certain language processing areas of our brains are activated in both spoken and written language. But when we hear stories, more areas of our brains are activated.

Instead of just processing the words and figuring out what they mean, the parts of our brains associated with movement, tastes, smells, and even emotions are engaged.

If you read or hear a story about someone swimming in a pool, the parts of your brain that process swimming will be activated. Areas that process scent might activate as if you were smelling chlorine. If the story gets intense – maybe the person in the pool is drowning – your adrenaline response will likely activate.

When so many parts of our brains are activated, we feel more engaged and energized.

So when you are telling a story, make sure to use descriptive words. This enables your audience to actually feel like they are living through your story. They’ll stay alert, engaged, and better remember your key ideas.

Why Storytelling Works: History

While the first reason why storytelling works is based on science, the second reason is less scientific but may resonate more strongly with you.

That’s because it’s a story – actually two stories.

Let me tell you a story…

Think back to ancient times. Even before we had the written word, we had stories. Picture a village – people huddled around a campfire sharing stories about their history, legends, and religions. When people traveled to new areas, they’d exchange stories with the residents, each entertaining and educating the others.

Most of what we know today about these ancient cultures is based on the stories that have been handed down. And we still have ancient stories that we can read today, seeing and hearing the same words people have been reading for centuries.

Now let's hear another story…

Now think of your first experiences of storytelling. It was likely a loved one – your parents, grandparents, or older caregivers reading you books. Maybe you were sitting on someone’s lap or lying in bed and listening to a bedtime story.

As you got a bit older, you shared stories with friends and family. When you got home from school, your parents asked you to tell them the story of your day. In summer camp, you shared scary stories with your roommates. And through all this time, you bonded with people by reading the same books and watching movies.

For most of us, our early memories of storytelling are full of love, excitement, and people we care about. They’re how we learned about far-off places and saw examples of how relationships work and how people process situations and emotions.

These two aspects of storytelling – our personal experience and our shared cultural experience – combine into a powerful connection with stories. We’re conditioned to listen to and value stories, and the act of listening to a story often generates positive emotions in addition to our reaction to the details of the story itself.

So if you’re not using storytelling to communicate, you’re missing out on a powerful way to improve the effectiveness of your communication and build relationships with others.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into why storytelling works! I’d love to read your own stories in the comments.

And for advice and best practices for storytelling, check out the replay of this webinar with storytelling expert Jerome Deroy.

Sales Webinar: Storytelling: How & Why It Will Transform Your Team to Excellence

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