The Natural Nature of Story

Julianne Schwietz MA, CPCC - June 2012

"Have I got a story for you!"

Why is it that this announcement grabs our attention and immediately stops all other thoughts in their tracks? These words are nearly as effective as an alarm sounding, unexpectedly. An alarm usually means serious business. A fire alarm, a smoke alarm, an alarm clock, the alarm in your head when you realize you forgot it was your turn to pick up the kids after school, an hour ago. These alerts to attention make sense because of their serious nature. Adrenaline rushes through the brain and sets you into motion.

When it comes to stories, typically, the opposite happens. People are entertained by stories, so instead of feeling alarm, we feel eager and an open mind to take it in. The anticipation of a story is relaxing, not alarming. Perhaps, it is this desire for story that makes it seem less serious and more like play, or entertainment.

It is a well-known fact, told to us through anecdotal evidence that business and organizational leaders choose not to lead through story for fear they will not be taken seriously. The attitude is that the use of stories and storytelling is simplistic, child’s play, if you will. There is little room for that in the corporate world, right? Wrong!

How the Human Brain Works With Story

The reason story seems simplistic is because it comes naturally to every human. Through the ages the human brain has evolved to process information by turning it into a story form conducive to understanding. The result is that story comes as naturally to us as learning to speak and understand language. This is how we “interpret” the facts, or “make sense of a situation.” The fact is the human brain is hardwired to take in information and process it through a story structure! This makes story easy to take for granted. After all, anything that comes this naturally is too simplistic for the serious subjects we deal with at work-right? Wrong, and ironically our brains must work harder to take in facts in the first place, and then because facts alone don’t communicate the whole picture we’re still parched for the rest of the story.

In his book, Story Proof: the science behind the startling power of story, Hendall Haven unveils research and studies that validate “stories are more efficient and effective structural vehicles when used to motivate, or teach and communicate factually, conceptual, and tacit information (attitudes, beliefs, values, and cultural expectations). Stories belong as the bedrock of management, leadership, education, outreach, and general communication efforts.”

    It turns out that your mind was evolutionarily hardwired long before birth to think in specific story terms… Evolutionary biologists confirm that 100,000 years of reliance on stories have evolutionarily hardwired a predisposition into human brains to think in story terms. We are programmed to prefer stories and to think in story structure.
    Unconscious portions of our human brains process raw sensory input and pass it to intermediate processing areas of the brain. These areas… are the exact areas that are activated when humans create stories. The output of these regions is fed to the conscious mind for consideration. In other words, the brain converts raw experience into story form and then considers, ponders, remembers, and acts on the self-created story, not the actual input experience!

It Just Comes Naturally

The ability and ease in which our brain uses story is much like how our lungs use oxygen. We don’t need to give a lot of thought to “how” to breathe, it comes naturally. We have learned though, more about how to breathe in various situations like in mediation, in high altitudes, under water, during child birth, and while exercising.

Before we learn how to do something differently, in a way that takes conscious effort over what comes naturally, our brain gathers information that will convince us of why to do it, or not. It is this internal conviction for the need to change that becomes our motivation to act, and we actually convince ourselves through the stories our mind translates from the information collected. If we are preparing for a mountain climb, we will consciously seek information about breathing techniques, for example.

The information in this article, and especially in Story Proof, is exactly the kind of “input” your brain likes to gather in order to be convinced that you want to be more conscious about the use of stories in your work. I will not convince you, nor will the plethora of research compiled in this stunning book. No, it will be the result of your brain taking in this information and connecting it to all your experiences and previous knowledge that relates in the smallest detail. In the end, your brain will have created a story you can hear playing in your mind and that you could tell to others.

So, are you ready to tell yourself a new story about storytelling? Have you taken in enough information to convince yourself there might be something to using story as a communication medium? If you’d like more information you may find these resources helpful:

  • The Story Factor by Annette Simmons
  • Wake Me Up When the Data is Over by Lori Silverman
  • The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling by Stephen Denning
  • Story Proof by Hendall Haven

Join the conversation

Add your experience to the conversation on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Read more of our articles.