Manner of Speaking

The Psychology of Storytelling

Earlier this year, Pam Allyn, the Executive Director of LitLife, a national organization specializing in innovative literacy education for schools and families, wrote an article entitled Storytelling Connects us All.

In her article, Allyn focuses on the importance of storytelling for the development of our children. Clinical psychologists and others might be interested in learning that research at the Yale Child Study Center shows that storytelling—especially between children and caregivers—is a key component of a person’s neurological development, and a skill that ultimately helps create a well-adjusted and resilient youth.

But stories aren’t just for the young. As Allyn notes:

Story connects us all. Children, adults, all of us everywhere can use the magic of story to find aspects of ourselves in others, and of others in ourselves. Story reminds us that connectedness to the world does not always mean some have more and some have less, but that we all have stories and that is what brings us together.

Another Audience Captivated

And so we return to one of my favourite themes — the importance of telling stories. One of the most valuable skills of that a public speaker can acquire is that of being a compelling teller of stories. Audiences crave them.

In 2008, Jeremy Hsu wrote an article for Scientific American entitled The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn. In it, he examined the work of psychologists and neuroscientists who are studying the human penchant for storytelling. What they are discovering is fascinating, but it boils down to this: People are wired to enjoy stories.

Here are some key quotes that I took away from Hsu’s article:

  • Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history. … People in societies of all types weave narratives … And when a characteristic behavior shows up in so many different societies, researchers pay attention: its roots may tell us something about our evolutionary past.
  • However narrative is defined, people know it when they feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism — recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.
  • [T]he best stories … captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call “narrative transport”.
  • [M]ost scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.
  • A 2007 study … found that a test audience responded more positively to advertisements in narrative form as compared with straightforward ads that encouraged viewers to think about the arguments for a product. Similarly … labeling information as “fact” increased critical analysis, whereas labeling information as “fiction” had the opposite effect. Studies such as these suggest people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mind-set.

The takeaway for public speakers, of course, is to tell stories. They help us connect with our audiences in a way that all the charts, graphs, statistics and bullet points in the world will never be able to do. And, as I wrote in a previous post, stories help us make our messages stick. They help us to be memorable.

And that is a happy ending for any public speaker!