The Power of Storytelling
By Alan Quintero/
April 06, 2017


Making change endure and building culture are two of the hardest things a leader has to accomplish. Fortunately, there is a powerful tool available for leaders to use: storytelling. In this article, we will explore the power of stories, why they work, and the elements that form a great story.

The power of stories

Appropriately, let’s begin with a story.

Jesus lived on this earth until approximately the year 30.  But most scholars believe that the books of the New Testament were not put down in writing until the year 50 or 100. Even then, the challenge of remembering the events of Jesus’ life did not end. The stories of the New Testament were primarily passed down orally, because copying the gospels by hand was banned until the emperor Constantine allowed it at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. For almost 300 years, the accounts of the New Testament were primarily passed on orally from person to person! Furthermore, from that point until the invention of the western printing press in 1439, the Bible was copied primarily by hand; thus, very few people owned the Bible.  Therefore, for almost 1400 years, the stories in the New Testament of the Bible were learned primarily through storytelling. I would venture to say that most people in western civilizations can recite one or more stories from the Bible. That, dear reader, is some powerful storytelling.

Here’s a more recent example. Steve Epstein was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Defense and in charge of the Standards of Conduct Office. When he conducted training, he found that reciting the rules alone was not working. The message did not seem to “stick”. So, he created the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures in which he collected stories of compliance failures in chapters titled “Bribery”, “Abuse of Power” and the like. Here’s a real gem from the encyclopedia:

A military officer was reprimanded for faking his own death to end an affair. Worthy of a plot in a daytime soap-opera, a Navy Commander began seeing a woman that he had met on a dating website. The Commander neglected to tell the woman that he was married with kids. After six months, the Commander grew tired of the relationship and attempted to end it by sending a fictitious e-mail to his lover – informing her that he had been killed. The Commander then relocated to Connecticut to start a new assignment. Upon receipt of the letter, his mistress showed up at the Commander’s house to pay her respects, only to be informed, by the new owners, of the Commander’s reassignment and new location. The Commander received a punitive letter of reprimand, and lost his submarine command.

This story, although better than just reciting policy statements, can still be improved. We will look more into that later in the article.

Why stories work

In 1944, Heider and Simmel conducted a study that showed that our brains are wired for stories. They played a movie to groups of students (you can see the movie here). The movie shows silent geometric shapes moving around the screen. One group was given directions to describe the story they saw. The other group was given little direction prior to seeing the movie, and then was asked to describe what they saw. Not surprisingly, there was very little difference between the two groups: they both saw the story of an angry triangle and its confrontation with a friendly triangle and circle.

This experiment shows how important putting data into the context of a story is to our brain.   In fact, 65% of our conversations are stories – primarily in the form of gossip. Why is that?

When processing facts, only two areas of our brains are engaged. These areas do nothing more than decode the words we hear into their dictionary meaning. But when we listen to an effective story, many other parts of the brain are activated. This results in interesting activities happening in our brains.

The first is neural coupling. Neural coupling allows the listener to turn words into virtual experiences. For example, smell words such as “lavender” and “cinnamon” activate the smell centers of the brain as if the listener had actually smelled them. Similarly, using active sentences such as “Bob kicked the ball” activate the portion of the listener’s motor area associated with leg motion.

The power of neural coupling lets an effect called mirroring to take place. Mirroring allows a story teller to relate personal experiences directly with the listener.  Since the motion and sensory areas of the brain are activated by action and sensory descriptive words, a story teller can almost recreate his or her reality in the listener’s brain by using those words.  When a story teller relates an effective story, the listeners’ brains are literally living those events.

Finally, the brain releases dopamine into the system when it experiences an emotional event – even through storytelling. Dopamine imprints a memory and makes the event easier to remember with more clarity. This is why saying “don’t go near that dog” is not as effective as saying “my friend was mauled by that slobbery, mean dog, so stay away.” The combination of neural coupling, mirroring and dopamine makes storytelling 22 times more effective in helping the listener retain information than data alone!

Furthermore, people are not rational beings by default. Our brain operates from two systems – sometimes called Fast Thinking (System 1) and Slow Thinking (System 2).

Fast Thinking is intuitive and uses less energy; therefore, it is the default system our brain uses. This is the system that allows you to talk while driving your car; to play the guitar without looking at the strings; or to just know that 2+2=4.

Slow Thinking is the rational and deliberate system. This system uses significantly more energy than Fast Thinking; therefore, it is not the one our brain chooses to use by default. Slow Thinking is the system which makes you think through a process, or figure out a problem. It is how the brain is operating when you’re trying to calculate 17 x 54 (which by the way is 918). Also, when you learn a new skill – think of driving a car – your brain is relying on Slow Thinking. The person learning a new skill has to think through every step, and when that person is done, they feel tired and drained. But as one is going through this learning, the brain is literally rewiring itself. New connections are made in the brain until the new skill can be performed without really thinking about it.

Again, our brains are designed to use Fast Thinking as the default. It is more energy efficient and faster. If our caveman ancestors would have had to use Slow Thinking for everything, we would not be here today. They would have been eaten by saber tooth tigers while they thought about how to react when they saw one!

These peculiarities of how our brains function are why flight simulators work for training an aircraft pilot. Without first practicing in a flight simulator, a mistake by a first-time pilot while landing in an unfamiliar airport (or on a short landing strip, or with a strong crosswind) could result in death, fire, and mayhem. But with a flight simulator, the same pilot can try the landing many times – and fail many times – without anyone getting hurt. All the while, the pilot’s brain is rewiring to be able to perform the real landing using their Fast Thinking brain.

Stories work like flight simulators on our brains. Because a well-crafted story causes our brains to activate as if we were experiencing the events (through mirroring), stories take us into intense simulations of situations that we are able to experience in parallel to our real life. We can have that rich experience without getting hurt at the end.

Stories rewire our brains much in the same way that a flight simulator does. These new brain connections then allow us to react using our Fast Thinking brain when exposed to similar real-life situations as those that we were exposed to through stories.

Connecting through stories

In his book I and Thou, the German philosopher Martin Buber states that humans are defined by two pairs: I-Thou and I-It.

Our relationship with things, the I-It relationship, separates us from that object. Our relationship with others, the I-Thou relationship, eliminates the boundaries between us. That is why, even if one is an extreme naturalist, one has no qualms over cutting down a tree for fire to warm one’s cold family.  The connection you have with your family — the I-Thou relationship – bonds us to them, while the I-It relationship with the tree separates us from the tree.

Storytelling allows us to see the subject of the story in an I-Thou relationship instead of an I-It relationship. When implementing change in an organization, simply putting lessons learned into policies and procedures keeps us separated from the results, and therefore does not create a sustainable culture. Understanding the “thou” behind a story builds a long-lasting connection.

In the medical field, many hospitals are now using this concept to avoid medical mistakes. Instead of referring to patients solely by their medical condition (believe it or not, medical staff used to call their patients names like “the broken leg in room 2”), the staff in encouraged to build the “story” behind the patient in their charts and conversations. This has been shown to help reduce the number of medical errors, since now the staff is connected to the patient through an I-Thou relationship instead of an I-It relationship.

Building a great story

The steps to building a great story can by remembered through the acronym “CAR”, which stands for Context, Action, and Results.

Context sets the background for the story. Where and when did it happen? Who is the main character? What does your character want to accomplish? Who is the villain, or what stands in your character’s way? The main character in your story needs to be someone the audience can connect to, and the villain (which doesn’t need to be a person, but could be a situation) needs to present a real challenge.

Action is the substance of your story. What does your character do? Action must include an obstacle, setback or failure.

Finally, Result is where you reveal your character’s fate. To be effective, you must subtly give the moral of the story.

To be fully effective, you must remember why stories work. Create an experience that induces mirroring by using action words, words that stimulate the senses, and avoiding clichés. Engage the audience by illustrating a real struggle. Pin your character against real villains – whether they are people, equipment, procedures, a change initiative, or whatever. Finally, admit flaws. Rosy pictures are boring.

Next time you are in a movie theater, look around you and watch the people. If the movie is effectively telling a story, you will see everyone reacting as a single organism. They will all laugh at the same time, flinch together, gasp simultaneously… A great story builds a common thread across a group of people. The story does not even have to be told to a group that is together. Think about the connection you feel with other people who also saw the latest blockbuster movie. You do not have to be in the same movie theater to share the experience.

Just as in the days of the early Christians, stories continue to serve the function of building a community through common experiences. Common stories build a culture. They encourage a group of people to behave in a unified way. Effective change management and the building of a strong culture cannot be done without the transformative power of storytelling.