A few years ago in a session of The Story Compass, a participant asked me, “Don’t you think storytelling is a bit primitive? I think we’ll evolve past it, communicate in a more sophisticated way.” My first thought was, “Whoah! Slow down buddy. You just called the whole course into question!” Then I thought about it some more because his idea was challenging AND interesting.
He has a point using the word primitive. It was, after all, primitive humans who came up with the story in the first place. No one could write down Gurth’s tip and tricks for avoiding a sabre tooth tiger attack and refer to them later. They had to figure out a simple way to capture, remember and retell that information. Story structure, metaphor, and archetypes were the tools they devised to do that.
So it could be that storytelling is primitive. But there is another possibility. That it was storytelling that allowed us to evolve into the sophisticated beings that we are today, and it is stories that will ensure we beautiful humans continue to evolve.
A computer can’t tell a story. AI can’t put words together in a way that connects to my deeper emotions and the essence of what makes me human. Human beings can. And there is a reason.
Humans have a prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that busies itself with higher order thinking and executive functions. It is the prefrontal cortex that does the storytelling. We can absorb data about something, organize that data into a story about something, and do it in a way that inspires other humans to care about that something, change their perspective about that something, and make them excited to tell another human being about that something. That’s some of the most sophisticated communication around. In the sophisticated communication arena, we wipe the floor with a PC.
There’s another aspect of storytelling that makes it pretty sophisticated. Its direct impact on our ability to feel empathy and compassion. As advanced as it is, my MacBook can’t imagine what I’m feeling right now and put words together in a way that will validate how I’m feeling and make me feel less alone. A human can. We have an empathy “muscle” built right into our brain (the anterior insular cortex, for the brain nerds out there). And that empathy muscle gets stronger when we engage with storytelling. Spend one hour reading Tolstoy and you’re likely to relate a bit better to the next human you meet, and treat that human with a bit more compassion.
Finally, stories help us to imagine new possibilities. Your computer can’t imagine a new way of laying out a Word document, paint you a picture of how that will improve your work day, organize a team around the vision, and then take the steps to make it happen. Humans do that without thinking twice about it. And if we engage with fiction we get better at it. You can educate your imagination and the easiest way is to read stories.
All of that points to the fact that storytelling is pretty sophisticated and has a powerful impact on our ability to do great work. Stories help us to: intelligently organize information, respond with empathy, and imagine creative possibilities. Sounds like a good set of leadership traits to me.
Have you exercised your storytelling skills lately? It might be time. Here is an easy story workout plan for the busy business person:
- Read fiction: Knock one hour off your weekly Netflix time and divert it to a fictional novel. It doesn’t have to be Tolstoy! Stephen King, Jack London, Sophie Kinsella… any author will do. Read fiction for one hour every week. Heck, if you’re enjoying the book, go for longer!
- Play with metaphors: In your next presentation, conversation, or written memo, take one of your abstract ideas and liken it to something familiar to your audience. See if you can draw out that metaphor a little bit. If it works, use it.
- Listen with empathy: When you are the audience member, try to imagine how the speaker is feeling. Watch for visual cues to support your imaginings. While they are speaking, imagine their idea from their perspective. Why might they be so excited about it? What problem might it solve for them? What might they need to move it forward? Practice taking yourself out of the equation, even for a little bit.
Like my course participant, we might tell ourselves storytelling has no place at work, or think it’s a primitive piece of window dressing to pretty up an idea. Deep down, though, I think we know that even though we’re presenting on Zoom, meeting with C-suite executives, or selling a technical piece of equipment to some savvy buyers, we’re not all that different from Gurth, using some berry juice on the cave wall, hoping everyone connects to his story, pays attention to what’s important and remembers it for next time.