1. A Story Is an Archetype
Experienced storytellers will tell you there are no new stories, just endless variations on old tales. That was certainly Shakespeare’s attitude, who would probably have found the idea of inventing a story faintly absurd, and who habitually plundered the works of historians, mythographers, ancient authors and his fellow dramatists for stories to use in his own plays.
When I saw The Lion King in the cinema, it seemed obvious to me that the story was based on the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris. According to the filmmakers, it was inspired by the Old Testament stories of Joseph and Moses, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And the plot thickens when we consider the allegation that elements of the film bear a strong similarity to the Japanese animation series Kimba the White Lion. As with many films and books, it’s possible to see all of these stories and more in The Lion King.
For an intriguing analysis of the mythic archetypes that can be traced in Hollywood feature films, read Christopher Vogler’s book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
2. A Story Is a Shortcut to the Emotional Brain
Stories don’t just give us facts and logical arguments – they give us the human drama of characters facing problems, challenges and ordeals. We can’t help but respond emotionally: we are wired with mirror neurons that replicate in our own bodies the actions and emotions we observe in other people (even if we only hear about them in a story).
So if you want to engage an audience at an emotional level, and influence them at a more profound level than logical argument, tell them a story that dramatizes your point in terms of characters they can relate to.
3. A Story Is How We Think
Narrative imagining – story – is the fundamental instrument of thought … rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining … most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organised as stories.
Observe your own trains of thought and listen to the conversations around you, and you’ll find stories everywhere.
Like the character in Molière’s play The Bourgeois Gentleman who discovers he has been speaking prose all his life without realising it, you may be surprised to learn that you have been a storyteller all your life.
4. A Story Reveals a Human Face
Ever since I heard about the Spartans of ancient Greece, whose entire lives were devoted to mastering the art of war, I was fascinated and repelled by them. Yes, they were fearsome warriors, but they sounded more like machines than human beings.
Then I read Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire, written in the voice of a Spartan warrior who fought at the epic battle of Thermopylae. As the story progresses, I felt I reached a deeper understanding of how people can be capable of feats of apparently superhuman bravery and subhuman cruelty – while still remaining human.
You’ve probably had the experience yourself, of taking a dislike to someone on first meeting them, then finding your attitude softening on hearing their story and gaining some insight into why they are the way they are.
5. A Story Is a Solution to a Problem
By definition, stories are dramatic. The protagonist responds to a challenge, either successfully or unsuccessfully, giving us the classic forms of comedy and tragedy.
So if your audience has a problem to solve and you believe you have the solution, then a story offers the ideal format for making your case, by introducing the problem and then showing how your ideas/product/service/call to action can help them solve it. (N.b. if you’re trying to persuade or sell, you’re usually better off with a comic story structure than a tragic one. ;-))
6. A Story Is a Trance Induction
Next time you hear a presenter utter the words, “The best way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to tell you a story…”, notice how the audience reacts. You’ll see them relax and settle into their chairs, looking forward to hearing what happens. As if they were seven years old again. The presenter might as well have said “Once upon a time…”.
When I trained in hypnosis, storytelling was one of the methods of trance induction I learned. When we listen to a story, and become absorbed in the plot and characters, we enter the dreamlike territory of our imagination, and start to experience many of the symptoms of hypnotic trance: slower breathing, heart-rate and blink-rate; unfocused gaze; relaxed muscles; decreased awareness of our surroundings; heightened awareness of internal imagery; and time distortion. Which explains why we have the feeling of ‘coming round’ at the end of a particularly captivating presentation or engrossing movie.
7. A Story Is a Factory of Understanding
I borrowed this phrase from the poet Ted Hughes, who wrote that stories are “little factories of understanding”. Once we know a story, we can read and re-read it, or watch it many times as a play or film, without exhausting its meanings. Each time we encounter the story afresh, we can learn something new from it.
So even if there are no new stories, new meanings emerge continually from the old ones, as they are told to different audiences, in different versions, via different media, with different settings and different interpretations of the characters.
Once you’ve seen one Macbeth, you haven’t seen them all: over the centuries, actors and directors have interpreted the character in many different ways. And that’s before you consider adaptations of the story into different media and languages, such as the animated Shakespeare, Verdi’s opera Macbeth and Kurosawa’s stunning samurai movie version, Throne of Blood.
8. A Story Is an Aid to Memory
When coaching clients on their presentation skills, I often find a light goes on when I tell them to forget about trying to memorise every single fact, or every word of their presentation, and instead to tell a story that dramatises the main point they are trying to get across.
For some reason, stories are easy to remember, even though they may contain plenty of twists and an enormous amount of information. There’s something about story structure that makes the information ‘sticky’ and easy to recall.
No wonder some of the most powerful memory techniques described by Tony Buzan and other experts involve using stories as ‘hangers’ on which to attach the information you want to remember.
9. A Story Is A Trojan Horse
Virgil tells us how the wily Greeks got fed up of banging their heads against the brick walls of Troy, and instead built a wooden horse and left it outside the gates. Intrigued, the Trojans wheeled the horse into their citadel, unaware that it contained a team of crack troops, who sneaked out after nightfall and opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army.
Now, clearly this analogy has its limits. You’re probably not locked in mortal combat with your audience, nor trying to raze their city to the ground. But if you’re trying to get the point across to a sceptical or even hostile audience, then telling a story can be a great way to capture their attention and get them to lower their defences long enough to give your idea a hearing.
10. A Story Is a Rallying Cry
Influential leaders instinctively understand the power of stories. Gandhi told a story about injustice and nonviolence that galvanised a nation and transformed its fortunes.
But the power of storytelling is a two-edged sword. Hitler and the Nazis told a different story about injustice, with the Jews as scapegoats, which led their nation down a dark and twisted path. Goebbels infamously said that if you repeated a lie often enough, people would come to believe it.
11. A Story Is a Witness
In a film such as Schindler’s List or The Last King of Scotland, the story bears witness to unspeakable events, making them vivid and unforgettable in a way the mere facts, however shocking, cannot.
In the latter case, James McAvoy’s character Dr. Nicholas Garrigan was an invention of the novelist Giles Foden – as an adviser and confidant of Idi Amin, he gives us a close-up view of the tyrant, forcing us to confront Amin as a flawed human being, which is even more horrific than dismissing him as an unspeakable monster.
12. A Story Is a Tool for Transformation
Storytelling is one of the core skills of coaches, therapists and teachers. Clients or students often begin their journey by telling a story about who they are, where they have from and where they are going – sometimes a tale of woe, with an unhappy ending in prospect. But an effective facilitator can help them rewrite their life story, keeping the same facts, but with an emphasis on coping, learning and moving forward to a happier future.
The same pattern can be observed in companies who turn themselves around, as their leaders help them to change the ‘company story’ from decline and failure to renewal and revitalisation.
Just to be clear: I’m not talking about glossing over facts or ignoring uncomfortable realities. But the same facts have a very different meaning when you look at them in a different light. Just ask the Ugly Duckling.
13. A Story Is a New Beginning
Each time we tell a story, we open up a new world. Even with a well-worn tale, there’s always the possibility of a new twist that gives it fresh meaning. Even when the story is relentlessly bleak, with a tragic ending, the story itself is a way of finding meaning and understanding.
Whatever the story, it’s a story of hope.
With special thanks to Wallace Stevens.
How Else Can We Look at a Story?
Which of these views of story is most revealing for you?
How has storytelling helped you – personally, professionally and/or creatively?
What other ways are there of looking at a story?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.