Now, I’ve bought fifteen seconds of your attention. You’re hooked by the promise of a great story, with action and heroes. But why do stories work on us like this?
I’ve just finished two days storytelling training with a large media company and I’ve never known sessions to go so well. These were all professional storytellers but it was like everyone instinctively got it and still wanted to learn more.
Now I think I know why. So let me tell you a story…
Think of a time when you were new in a job. You settled in to an established order and tried to follow what people around you were doing. But then you found problems you couldn’t resolve, things that didn’t make sense. Surely there had to be a different way to do this? You tried, but nothing worked at first. You kept trying. Gradually a shape emerged from the chaos. After a lot more trying, you established a new and better way.
I’m describing the classic hero’s journey, from Homer’s Iliad to Homer Simpson. I’m also describing the way our brains make sense of a confusing world: assemble evidence, spot things that don’t fit, resolve problems by finding a new theory. It’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or…
Act One: the world has an established order but something doesn’t fit
Act Two: the problem can’t be ignored, you have to act
Act Three: through trial and error you realise what needs to change
Act Four: you struggle to put this new knowledge into action
Act Five: a new order emerges where everything makes sense
And we all live happily ever after. At least, until the next problem emerges.
This is the story of Hamlet, Jane Eyre and Breaking Bad, and it’s the story of your day at work too. It’s the story of anyone trying to make sense of their world. This is why storytelling works – for professional writers or anyone who needs to communicate with passion about their work. We tell stories in the same way as we make sense of the world and our own place in it. This is why, a few seconds in to any conversation about work, I find myself telling stories to make my point.
“All of our storytelling theories have one thing in common,” writes John Yorke*, who has studied dozens of them. “All revolve around one central idea: the incomplete is made complete, sense is made.”
“Storytelling is the dramatisation of the process of knowledge assimilation.”
So long as you remain curious about the world or determined to change it for the better, you will be hooked by stories.
I think, therefore I am… a storyteller.
*Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, by John Yorke
Click here if you’d like to watch the storytelling training I delivered last week.