Wednesday / May 29

Why Tell Stories? 

I didn’t know the answer to this question when I was a first year teacher telling stories to kids, but found this a great way to teach history. Later in my career I noticed that the phrase “Let me tell you a story” had an almost magical quality. Adults turn away from cell phones, swivel to watch the speaker, and both adults and children noticeably enter a trance state. Guaranteed, time-after-time. What was going on? I didn’t have a clue – until recently. 

Studies of how brains respond to stories have shed light on the “why tell yarns” question, and why leaders in many disciplines are rediscovering the value of story telling in their work. Here are a few discoveries about our brains with some related dos and don’ts of telling stories. 

How The Brain Hears 

Stories resonate so strongly with us because of the ways our brains receive them. These four findings can guide the storyteller to some “best practices” in constructing and telling stories: 

  1. Listeners’ brains synchronize with the brain of the storyteller. 
  2. A chemical ballet begins in the brain, releasing oxytocin, also known as the empathy chemical. 
  3. Listeners “act out the story in their bodies,” seeing, feeling, and hearing the story unfold vicariously as they listen. 
  4. Largely below conscious awareness, brains search for related experiences and construct personal meaning. 

So how might we shape stories with this information in mind? 

Simple is best. The simple story is more successful than the complicated one. A presenter can be tempted to load a story with detail to increase its interest. In reality, though, the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick. Using simple language as well as low complexity is the best way to activate the brain regions that make us truly relate to the situation and happenings in the story. It’s not important if an event happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, so skip irrelevant details. 

Use artfully vague language. When you enrich a story with creatively vague sensory descriptions, the listener’s search for connection to personal meaning increases. Some examples: “Enjoyed a full array of delightful colors,” or “Smells reminding him of home,” or “Felt the soft breeze.” Narrations, especially those with rich sensory descriptions cause the cortical and subcortical areas of listeners’ brains to synch with the brain of the person telling the story.  

Delete phrases the brain can’t hear. The brain ignores words and phrases that tend to be overused. Scientists studying storytelling have found that certain words and phrases have lost all storytelling power. For example, figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and do not evoke deeper meanings. 

Limit the use of the personal pronoun. Some stories about self are useful, but if over done they begin to sound like attention getting. I will often attribute an experience of mine to another character in order to make a point but not appear as if I am bragging. 

Be clear about your purpose. Early in my career I might tell two or three stories when one would do. I came to realize that I was telling stories for me, because people responded well and it was fun. Once I realized this I backed off, getting clearer about the effect I wanted to produce and telling whatever story I thought might do this most effectively. 

Bring characters alive. Descriptions, voices, mannerisms, and displays of energy distinguish one character from the next. The more real the characters in the story appear, the greater chemical change in the brains of the listeners. Several studies find audience members more likely to be empathic, generous, or even donate to causes represented in a story. 

Be purposefully ambiguous. “Do you remember snatching that impulse away?” Without sufficient context, some statements may trigger – outside of awareness – an internal search to interpret a question. Do I remember an impulse I disregarded? What would snatch it away mean? How do I deal with impulses I don’t want to act on? “The many colors that sunsets can be” likewise starts the mind considering, even if briefly, different colors they’ve experienced at sunset and perhaps even different locations. When the mind is engaged in searches like these, the next thing said by the storyteller slips past the natural filters we use to block messages we don’t want to consider.  

Have a beginning, middle, and end. As I reported earlier “…the most important aspect of this natural structure is not to be caught elaborating so long on one section that the others get short shrift. Be sure that both the beginning and end are carefully crafted. Design a turning point in a story. If the beginning was one way and the end another, there must have been a point in the middle where things changed. (Garmston 2018 p.74)” 

Be bold, experiment. Some stories can even change the behaviors of a group. I was preparing once to facilitate a problem solving session with a faculty when I was alerted that this staff had a reputation for not taking responsibility for anything. Their pattern was to blame the principal. Forewarned, I devised a story loosely based on what I knew of The Little Prince and started the session thus: “Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here. Just before I start, however, I would like to know if anyone has read the new children’s story, How Green Is My Garden?”  

Since I had created the story for this specific occasion, no hands went up. I proceeded to tell a story of an “expert” visiting a small planet and interviewing plants growing there about their care. Some plants whined and complained while others, with the same information about conditions in the garden, reported constructively, sometimes even with suggestions as to how the gardener could improve the situation. A tension arose in the story as I described how the gardener was puzzled because he was hearing the same information from different sections of the garden, yet there was something unique in what he was hearing. This “puzzling” is an essential element of what I describe as “desired state stories” in The Astonishing Power of Storytelling. In this story, the expert finally realizes that some are complaining and blaming while others are registering concerns in such a way that constructive action can be employed. This is the “desired state” I wished to encourage by telling the story. Sure enough, faculty members were enthusiastic in contributing to solutions, not complaints, in our session. 

Have a compelling close. Carolyn McKanders, a colleague and trainer of Adaptive Schools and Cognitive Coaching, tells a story in which her husband watches her during a one hour session with a 7-year-old boy brought to her because the boy was said to be a non-reader. During the session the boy demonstrates, discovers, and declares, for the very first time, that he is a reader. “My husband wept,” is how she ends her story. Many eyes in the audience, too, are tearful when the tale is complete. 

My sincere thanks to Lucy Fisher, a colleague and Educational Consultant in Australia, who asked me about ways she might hone her storytelling skills. She got me thinking, and I hope others can profit from her interest in this topic. 

 -Robert Garmston, El Dorado Hills, California 

Garmston, R. (2018) The Astonishing Power of Storytelling: Leading, Teaching and Transforming in a New Way. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press 

Written by

Robert J. Garmston is Emeritus Professor of Educational Administration at California State University, Sacramento. He is co-developer of Cognitive Coaching with Art Costa and co-developer of Adaptive Schools with Bruce Wellman. He has worked as an educational consultant and made presentations and conducted workshops for teachers, administrators, and staff developers on leadership, learning, and personal and organizational development in twenty-four countries on five continents. Formerly an administrator and teacher in Saudi Arabia and the United States, his work has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, and Spanish. Bob lives in El Dorado Hills, California, near his five children and five (bright and cute) grandchildren.

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