The Power of Stories

Jose lived with his wife and children in Madrid. One morning, after a family breakfast, Jose grabbed his umbrella and left for the office. In Madrid, it rains every day and Jose had to fight his way through the wet traffic yet again.

You probably read this and thought: “Yes, and?”.  If I had simply stated:

In Madrid, it rains every day.

You are more likely to object.  And if you were really insistent, you might head over to a local weather site and check it out.  But when information is presented in the form of a story, we simulate the information rather than question whether the facts are true.  Much of this stems from the so-called Suspension of Disbelief that we enter into when enjoying a story.  We all know Matt Damon is not a janitor at MIT solving extraordinarily difficult math equations, yet we put that objection aside and just enjoy the show.

This gives stories an extra ability to persuade, but also allows us to learn far more from them. For instance, firefighters  tell each other stories of things they have experienced so that others can know how to respond in similar circumstances. When those circumstances arise, they can very quickly recall the story and act accordingly. This is far more effective than simply giving a set of facts to memorize.

There are people who can memorize a deck of cards in under 30 seconds and remember the order perfectly because they tell themselves a story about the cards. We remember stories, we simulate them and they become part of our experience. Ever watch a tense movie and have your adrenal glands kick in? That’s simulation. Ever have your adrenal glands kick in from watching someone read a power point presentation? Not usually (unless you managed to weave a story in your mind that gets you excited).

When we plan for the future, we plan with stories. We picture what it will look like to have this or that and what work will be required to get us there.  We are hard wired for stories: both learning from them and telling them.

I think that powerful story telling is becoming a lost art in our modern culture.  Partially because of the shear number of distractions in the world around us, and partially because people don’t spend the time telling stories.  We waste our time on stories that carry little merit but are entertaining and ignore stories that have significance — ones we can learn from.

This gap I think provides an opportunity for us as leaders.  Share your stories so that others can benefit, tell stories to help instruct others, and listen to good stories so that you can learn as well.







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