Humans love a good story. It’s probably our most effective invention (after writing of course), yet so simple in its execution that even a child can understand one.
We’re all familiar with the way stories distill complex ideas into an unfolding sequence of events – usually viewed through the lens of characters, who react and develop in a way we can sympathise with. But have you ever paused to consider just how mesmerisingly powerful a story can be? And just how much persuasive influence they have over our thinking?
I liken our general awareness of how stories work to the nation’s grasp of grammar. Most of us know how to use it implicitly, but we don’t quite grasp the underlying rules and mechanics. We’re taught the what and how, but less so the why.
Same for me, until I collaborated with a professional storyteller, on a (soon-to-be-published) article about the art of storytelling.
He explained to me how stories mimic our inner narrative and our relationship with time – how we perceive it as linear, and how reality to us is a string of related causes and effects. Put simply, stories help us make sense of all the complexity, uncertainty and noise around us. They connect things.
It also fascinated me to learn how brain maps reveal stories are social; when we share them, the same parts of the brain in both listener and speaker light up (called neural coupling) – in the regions that deal with imagination, emotion, movement and the senses.
Put simply, stories are tools for synchronising our experience of reality
These revelations have set me on a course to discover more about the science of stories, for tricks I might borrow and incorporate into my freelance copywriting, of case studies and speechwriting. Like grammar, I use story-telling narratives a lot as a copywriter – but examining the fundamental building blocks unveils a whole new world of possibility.
Stories in context
I’m devouring Nick Clegg’s account of his time in coalition government at the moment, and the penny dropped when he put stories into a context I’m deeply engaged in – that of modern politics:
“Simply appealing to hope, optimism or a better life is nothing more than an emotional spasm unless it is wedded a compelling story story about who you are, what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it. Stories enable you to understand something instinctively, to feel and see it for yourself, in a way that is much more compelling than simply following a logical argument to a rational conclusion. It’s the difference between showing and telling.”
He continues to say that powerful stories involve simplified choices between what you perceive as good or evil. They appeal to the heart, not the head. I think this is because much as we like to think of ourselves as rational, moderate and logical beings – we’re not. We’re just animals perpetually playing catch up with the technology, events and new challenges we unleash.
And there’s no more influential, profound example of the power of stories than in events of our recent past here in the UK. Nick quotes the easily-understood narratives of the SNP, extolling liberation from a tyrannical English government (a timeless theme in Scottish folklore, and probably well-justified). How UKIP paint a rosy picture of the good old days when Britannia ruled the waves, and a return to the certainties of matron on the ward, and barbarously stringing people up who later turn out to be innocent.
For right or wrong, these are simple stories that evoke strong emotion by borrowing from established motifs; stirring up powerful feelings in the listener. They’re bold and unafraid to assert their worldview, however controversial. They contrast against familiar backdrops and propose simple solutions to problems.
The trick to writing lasting ones, however, is to be honest and put virtue at the heart of your story.
“Governments and leaders who have a clear story that has a beginning, middle and end will generally be rewarded.”
Nick’s right, and the same goes for anyone who wants to influence other people. Craft an evocative story, rich in imagery and emotion, that handholds a reader into their promised land, and you’ll connect with the people who share that, your, worldview.
And whatever story you do craft, make sure it’s steeped in your vision, your cause, what gets you out of bed in the morning – because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
Stories help us make sense of the world we’re creating, which often feels too complex and overwhelming for many of us. And as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Making complicated things clear and easy to understand is what I’ve done all my life (not just as a freelance copywriter) so I feel the burden is on me, in some small part, to use that gift wisely, for good.
So with this newfound knowledge comes respect. Next, I plan to put stories to meaningful use in my case studies as a freelance copywriter, ideally for clients who share my aspiration to do the right thing.
Honesty always comes first. And if there’s one thing stories tell us, it’s that the hero or heroine who perseveres, and tries to do the right thing, always comes out on top.