The Why, How, and What of Storytelling: In-Depth Guide
A long time ago in a small village lived two girls, one named Truth and one named Story. Each wanted to be the most popular girl in the village.
Soon a rivalry developed between them. They decided to settle the question once and for all with a contest. Each girl would walk through the village.
Whichever girl was greeted by the most villagers would be the winner.
Truth went first. She set off down the cobblestone street, passing through the heart of the village. Not one person came out to greet her. By the time she reached the other end of town, she was devastated.
Story went next. She had taken only a few steps before people began coming out of houses and shops. “Story, how are you?” “Story, good to see you!” And so it went until she had passed through the village and reached Truth, who was in tears.
“Story,” said Truth, drying her eyes. “You win. You are the most popular girl in the village.
Everyone likes you. But why?”
Story put her arm around Truth’s shoulder. She spoke in a consoling voice.
“You and I,” she said, “we are not so different. I have Truth in me, too.
But nobody wants to hear the naked truth.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” said Truth.
“Here,” Story said, removing her cloak. “Take this, and wrap yourself in it.”
“What is it?” Truth asked.
“Emotion,” Story said. “Wear it, and you, like me, will become Story.¹
The information behind the story you just read is that the naked truth is ugly and nobody wants to hear it. You need to put a story in your truth for it to be heard and accepted.
And there you have it, the truth about storytelling. The entire thing was put in those 2 sentences. It should be easy to remember and digest.
It should…. It should?
But it isn’t.
And for me to explain why that is not the case, we need to go back, a long way back to hunga bunga times.
Tribal Times and Oral Storytelling
Jack is a small Homo Sapiens living 30 000 years B.C. and is sharing his habitat with another 120 people called Makula tribe. Jack is really hairy and is easy to spot because all of his hair appear to be orange colored.
On top of that, Jack has freckles on his face, a big scar on his left foot, a mark from a lion Jack killed in a face-to-face fight when he was just 14 years young.
He was able to kill the lion because he spent every night listening to elders in his tribe brag about their killing sprees with various wild animals like saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and lions.
One guy, in particular, Aaron was hunting lions and has killed more than 15 of them face-to-face. Aaron told the tribe his secret.
He called the secret “Roll and Slice”.²
Roll and Slice was a technique designed by Aaron where you face the lion head on and start running toward him.
You stop 20 meters in front of the lion and roll on your left side while keeping the knife in your right hand.
This way the lion cuts himself on your knife just below his mouth and cuts his main artery.
And the lion dies in a matter of seconds while you come unharmed from the duel.
Jack listened to Aaron and learned how to deal a deadly blow to the lion if he was one day attacked. And that is what happened when he was 14.
Jack used Roll and Slice and killed the lion.
Then Jack started using the storytelling to share his captivating adventure with the tribe and the youngsters. And then the youngsters started learning Roll and Slice and it soon became the thing that everyone in the tribe knew how to do.
The entire Makula tribe learned how to kill a lion through the power of oral storytelling. They didn’t write stuff down so you had to pay attention to stories to survive.
- Listen to stories around fire
- Learn Roll and Slice
- Kill a lion to survive
- Share the story
- Listen to stories around fire
- Learn X
- Use X to survive
- Share the story
If you didn’t listen to stories, you would probably die from something which could have been prevented by just listening to stories.
So we humans programmed our brain to listen and pay really close attention to stories.
Because we only learnt from narrative for our entire existence until we discovered an easier way to forward knowledge and that is through written storytelling.
This is the How of the stories and let us move now to the Why of the stories.
Why are stories so memorable and impactful?
The illogicality of the human brain is, in fact logical — me
So we understood the How, now it is time for the Why.
Our brain is really fuzzy and in fact illogical with a lot of things.
Our brain actually consists of 3 brains (triune brain).
The first brain we have is the reptilian brain. This brain has only 3 functions.
Fight, flight or freeze.
We first had this brain and its main responsibility is to keep us alive. It turns on and hijacks our body when we are in mortal danger.
When someone attacks you on the street, this brain takes over and decides what to do.
On top of that brain, we got the limbic brain. This brain is where all of our emotions happen, where you experience joy but also pain, gratitude but also hate, anger but also love.
This brain has an enormous capacity to store memories. It serves as our hard drive, storing everything that happened in our lives since the day we were born up until the moment you are reading this.
And on top of the limbic brain, we got our newest brain addition called neocortex. It is this brain that made civilization as it is today. This brain gives us immense focus power and can process information in details.
It is not a lot of information at the same time, but we can go in-depth. (+-7 pieces of information at the time).
And this brain with the ability to focus and think about stuff made the entire world as it is today. Everything from buildings, roads, robots to schools, kindergartens, hospitals. Everything we see made by humans is made because we have the neocortex.
It is our “smart brain”, in charge of thinking, logic, mathematics etc.
And guess what?
It is not in charge of our decision-making in life.
Yes, it’s crazy.
The brain in charge of our decision-making in life is actually our limbic brain- our center for emotions.
This is what Richard Restak means when he tells that “ Humans are not thinking machines. Humans are feeling machines that think”
Now let us combine this information to show why storytelling is so powerful.
It follows that…
The limbic brain can process 10 000 000 bits of information at the same time.
Neocortex can do 40 bits of information at the same time.³
Limbic brain stores everything that happened in your life, but only has access to the emotions… That is why you remember the happiest moments from your childhood but also the dick from third grade who teased you in front the entire classroom and made you cry.
The limbic brain is the center of our emotions and is in charge of decision making in our lives.
Storytelling is powerful because it evokes emotions. There is no story without emotion.
A story with no emotion is called news or information.
If a story carries an emotion, the limbic brain will remember it. And not only will it remember it now, it will remember it forever!
And the heart of every storytelling is emotion.
Our limbic brain doesn’t know if the story is happening now or we are just remembering it.
The emotional center goes on immediately. So we are reliving the memories as they are happening now.
Imagine that you are in the kitchen. You take a white cutting board and put a small, sharp ceramic knife on it. Now you turn to the fridge, go there and grab a fresh, yellow and ripe lemon from it.
You take the lemon out and put it under water for 10 seconds just to clean it a bit. Now you take some napkins and dry the lemon from the water.
You put the lemon on the white cutting board, take the small, sharp ceramic knife and cut the lemon in half.
When you cut the lemon, the juice spreads on the white cutting board immediately and the smell of lemon starts going through the air.
You take one-half of the lemon and put it near your nose and start to smell it. The lemon is so fresh and yellow and just put your mouth in it and bite through it. The juice goes through your mouth and eyes squeak a bit because of the bitterness.
Ok, you can stop imagining it now because your mouth is full of saliva. Why is that? Your brain thinks that you are now eating a lemon and it sends this message to your mouth and your mouth then starts producing saliva as you are about to eat a lemon and need to digest it.
See your brain has no idea if it’s happening now or you are just remembering it.
It is the same thing with stories.
Now you understand stories and their correlation with emotions.
You visualize every aspect of the story and relive it like it is happening now. You experience the storytelling with all of your senses. To see the yellowness of the lemon, feel it’s ripeness in your hands, hear the sound of juice sprinkling when it’s cut and taste the bitterness in your mouth.
This means to relive the story.
Let us now see how to use them in everyday life so that you can profit in business, love, finances, family life, to teach your kids, to teach others, to prove a point, to change someone’s mind.
So let us dive into:
The Art of Storytelling in real life
Now we know the Why, the How and it is time to understand the What of storytelling.
Stories help us deliver better presentations, persuade people, get a raise, galvanize people around the same vision, articulate why we do what we do, raise our children, transfer messages easier, effectively teach others and multiple more.
These are just the main areas of life where we can use storytelling. We will create a step-by-step process here on creating effective stories even on boring topics.
Start with Why
As Simon Sinek would say it, always start with Why. It is the cause root of your story.
This can change the way everyone perceives you. Here is an example:
You remember Jack from earlier? Well, Jack grew older and got a job as a janitor.
Jack perceives being a janitor as a job.
“Jack, what do you do?”
“I work as a janitor”
Let’s see what Jack tells us when he perceives being a janitor as a career.
“Jack, what do you do?”
“I have a career as a janitor. I strive to be the best and most effective janitor ever. To learn new things every day to keep myself up to date. “
Now it looks better. There is a whole world difference between a perception of a job and a career.
You take a job but you create a career.
When you take a job, you work for the salary.
When you create a career, you work for your growth.
But there is one more level.
Let’s see what Jack tells us when he perceives being a janitor as a calling.
“Jack, what do you?”
“You see, every day that I wake up I go to serve people in my “world” called the Office HQ. The things I do are not immensely great like the stuff Elon Musk is doing. But in my reality, they are the equivalent of saving the world.
Every day my heart fills up with joy when I help the “world” function at it’s best. It is a feeling I can’t exchange with anything else.
And the rewards I get are as big as a skyscraper. It’s a sincere thank you from Alice, a clumsy intern from the 3rd floor when I repair the copy machine. The smile, hello and last night game commentary from John, the accountant from the 5th floor; and the daily joke that laughs me up from Mike, the CTO of the company. ”
“OMG, what do you?”
“Well, people in the “world” call me Jack but I can say that my job is usually called a janitor.”
The perception we have for Jack now is totally changed. He really loves what he is doing and for him, it is a calling. And it just took some storytelling.
Or as the story would go:
“One day, President John F. Kennedy visited NASA headquarters. It was his first time there so he went for a tour around the facility. While touring, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA.
The janitor replied, “I’m helping put the man on the moon!”
Not a job he dredges, not a career he creates, but a calling to which he serves.
Understanding your Why means understanding your purpose.It doesn’t have to flashy and usually, it is not.
It needs to be yours and truly yours, the most personal thing in the entire world.
And when you embrace and live it, you figure out that just talking about it puts people on their toes for what is about to come.
And that is how, with that extra flavor of appealing storytelling, you express your emotions (stories) about your personal life and get people to hear them out. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you really love it and can show them the emotion behind it.
Humanize with context
If you get this right, you will be an amazing storyteller.
The point of the context is to humanize the speaker/presenter/learner. It is to walk down from your throne of social status (people perceive you like this) and show them that you are a human being just like them.
You need to humanize yourself to be able to connect with other people. Otherwise, it is going to be almost impossible to deliver your messages to others. They just won’t listen to you because you are not in their reality.
You are not in their frame of mind.
Here is an example of what I am talking about.
example 1: “It was late Friday afternoon when we got a service call from our biggest customer. Their system was down, and they were losing money by the minute…”
example 2: “Last summer, our engineers were almost burned out. They had just released a new product after months of hard work and overtime. Our lead engineer, Jack, had told the guys they could leave early, and everybody was relaxed and happy, looking forward to a long holiday weekend with no deadline looming. Then we got this call…”
When you provide more context, people understand and can relate to that. They care about Jack in the story. He is no longer a random engineer in the story, he is not a character named Jack who we can imagine and relate to.
Nobody cares about the many, everyone cares about the one
Whenever we need to show a big and immense problem, do not and I repeat this, DO NOT FOCUS ON THE MANY.
Nobody gives a flying f… about the many. It is just a random gray mass of people somewhere over there.
If people can’t imagine it in their heads (you know, using emotions), nobody will care.
Logic doesn’t move people, emotions do.
And here is a perfect example how nobody cares about the gray mass. This is the story about the mass.
The story about the thirsty people
The poverty in Africa begins with the lack of clear water. A billion people in the world lack access to clean, safe water. Over 90% of those people live in Africa, mainly in the Sub-Saharan region.
Africans lose over 40 billion hours per year only on collecting water. That is a whole year’s worth of labor by France’s entire workforce.
Access to clean water and basic sanitation can save around 16 000 lives every week.
Clean and accessible water matters especially in health, hunger, and education. If you have safe water, then your hands are clean, your body is clean and the time of sickness is reduced drastically.
Access to water leads to food security and children from school don’t have to gather water which makes them available for much-needed education.
This is a story about Africa. The facts give us an insight into the situation and it is horrible, but it doesn’t make us lift from our chairs and do something.
It is there but we don’t care. Why? Because it is not characterized. It is not personal.
Story of Scott Harrison
Scott Harrison is speaking to a room of 2,000 marketers.
“On a trip to Ethiopia last year I learned about this woman named Letekiros,” he tells them. “I actually never met her. She lived 10 years ago. I was in a crappy $6 hotel room and the hotel owner came up and said:
‘You’re the Charity Water people. We know what you’ve been doing here. Let me tell you a story about this woman who lived in my village when I was young.
She used to walk 8 hours a day.
Three hours out and five hours back. She didn’t have a yellow jerry can. She had this clay pot. Which weighs 10–15 pounds empty. Then you put another 30 pounds of water in it.
The water had dried up on her land. She couldn’t move because she lived off the land.
So she walked. Eight hours.
One day she came back to the village after her walk. She slipped and fell. The clay pot broke. And all the water spilled out.
She took a rope and she hung herself from the tree in the middle of the village.
The innkeeper let that sit.
He said, ‘What you guys are doing is important,’ and he walked off.”⁴
Not only did people listen to this story, they acted. Almost all of the 2000 people donated to Charity: Water after the speech.
Nobody actually cares about 800 million people. We care about people. About people like Jack. Like Letekiros.
When we know the suffering (emotion) of one individual from that group like Letekiros, we can then imagine how the rest of the group feels. We can imagine what they deal with.
Always talk about the one example. Characterize it. Paint a picture. Show it to people. Let them imagine it in their heads. Vividly.
Like they were there to see it.
Don’t tell, show!
This is the last step in becoming a master storyteller.
We need to show the story instead of telling it. Just look at this and let me know what paints a better picture:
“I feel angry”
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up. The vein on my forehand pumped up. I clenched my fists and started grinding my teeth. My eyes spread wildly, the air in my lungs started to boil and I was one step away from losing it.”
So what do you think paints the picture better?
You should describe emotions, especially the ones that we use daily. It will give you the mastery overexpressing those same feelings when needed.
Because you remember, emotions are the ones that carry the story.
Don’t tell them
With these steps, you will become a master storyteller.
We have seen the Why, How, and What of storytelling. The Why was focused on our social animal of Homo Sapiens and the way that we operated in the past.
Narrative is still alive in us and it is still an amazing way to both learn and teach
Through How we figured out how our mind works, or better yet which of our 3 brains is in charge of that. That showed us the power of storytelling and why is it more influential than bare facts.
And last but not least, we learned about What of storytelling. Because all of our understanding is useless if we don’t use in everyday life.
So we went through 4 ways of using effective storytelling every day.
- Start with Why
- Humanize with context
- Nobody cares about many, everyone cares about one
- Don’t tell, show!
Starting with Why brings out our emotions unconsciously and helps us paint the picture in someone else’s head.
Humanize with context helps us relate to the people we are talking to. Doesn’t matter if we are teachers in front of a classroom, a boss in front of employees or a parent talking to a child, we need to connect and relate to being able to deliver our message.
Nobody cares about the numbers because they are just numbers. But if there is one story, a specific character behind just one of those numbers, then we listen. We follow a character and care for him.
After we hear the story, we can relate to the many, but first, we need to hear the story of one to care
And lastly, we talked about showing emotions instead of telling the emotions. It is about experiencing the emotion and not just bluntly telling it is an information.
If you feel it, you have been shown.
If you don’t feel it, you have been given an information.
And this sums the in-depth guide on storytelling. I wanna thank and congratulate you too for staying with me until the end.
We both learned a lot from this.
I really wish you to internalize these elements and use them every day in your life. That will make your life better. But not only yours, it will make the lives of everyone around you better.
Let me know in the comments how you are planning to use these insights.
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- Borrowed from “What Great Salespeople Do” by Michael Bosworth
- Roll and Slice is just a product of my imagination. I have no idea how to kill a lion and please do not try this tactic when (if) facing a lion.
- Borrowed from “Charisma on Command” by Charlie Houpert
Originally published at selfhelpbasis.com on June 11, 2017.