We might not always be aware of it, but we tell stories all the time. Whether telling someone what we did over the weekend or explaining how we came up with a certain idea for a project, we use storytelling to share our emotions, experiences and knowledge.
And we have been doing so throughout history. Stories have allowed us to pass on information from one generation to the next in the form of books, visuals and the spoken word. Some cultures rely heavily – or solely in some cases – on oral storytelling to pass on traditions, values and beliefs. Members of the Native American Abenaki tribe, for example, have traditionally told their children stories as a way to teach them right from wrong and so instil core values in them. Fairy tales have done the same for many cultures for hundreds of years.
So why stories? What makes them so valuable?
First and foremost, stories allow us to make sense of the world around us. The way this works is quite simple: our brains are hardwired to look for patterns, i.e. finding links between cause and effect. This is how we learn from a young age. For example, if we touch something very hot and it hurts our hand we make the causal connection between the two and learn not to touch that thing again. The end result of this thought process is a story, which we can then share with others to spread our knowledge.
Stories can touch us in any number of ways. They can open our minds to new perspectives, inspire and persuade us, help build our confidence, grow a sense of inclusion and incite change. Ultimately, they can be used to shape our values and beliefs. Think, for example, of how stories are used within religion and politics to influence how people think and what they believe.
A story’s power comes from its narrative form, which draws us in much more than dry facts ever could. Evidence from neuroscience suggests that when we listen to a story our brain patterns start to mirror those of the speaker, allowing us to connect on a deeper level. The way a story is structured – with a clear beginning, middle and end – also helps to maintain our engagement as we long to hear the outcome.
Being a great storyteller is an incredibly useful skill for any professional to have, and a relatively easy one to master: after all, it’s something that we practise almost every day. However, to perfect the art there are some ground rules to keep in mind:
- Make sure you understand your audience and how best to best to engage them.
- Your story needs to be easy to follow with a clear structure.
- Don’t forget the power of delivery: your tone of voice and body language can influence engagement levels.
Evaluate your own storytelling skills: how comfortable do you feel telling a story? How good do you think you are at engaging others when you speak? Then start practising those skills. Whether it’s at your next networking event, during a presentation, or a meeting with your boss or a hiring manager: tell a story about you, your career or the project you are working on. Chances are whoever’s listening will remember that story over anything else.