How we are hardwired to learn and think through storytelling

Aspen Ideas Festival

Aspen Ideas Festival

I recently discovered the Aspen Ideas Festival and a session by Kendall Haven about why we are hardwired to think and learn through storytelling.*

Given that human beings have been relying on storytelling for over 100,000 years to learn and archive it is no surprise that the human mind is predisposed to think in story terms to understand, make sense and remember. Story is in our DNA.

According to Kendall, there is now scientific research that clearly shows that a good story:

  • Provides superior memory and recall
  • Provides improved understanding
  • Creates context and relevance
  • Creates empathy

Why does story work?

Kendall claims that whether you want to do it or not our brains are wired to make sense automatically and understand through stories. We simply don’t have a choice. So as a storyteller your job is to present information you want to convey in a way that lands in the conscious mind and memory of your listener.

Kendall refers to a part of our brains called the ‘neural story net’. It’s like a processor that lies between the external world and internal mind that makes sense of incoming information. It responds most effectively to information presented as stories. If the information presented is incomplete or parts of the story don’t make sense, the neural story net either disengages – it just ignores the information, or fills in its own gaps so that the story makes sense. This can lead to making assumptions, distortion of the information, miscommunication and misunderstandings.

So Kendall shows us that as a storyteller, if you can make the information you are providing fulfil the needs of the neural story net then your story will be understood, relevant, emotional and memorable to the listener.

Below are the elements that the neural story net requires to make sense of the information it is receiving and make your story stick;

  1. Why: what is the goal for the main character? What are they seeking? (not what they do) A clear goal is really important. The end of the story is when the goal is reached. (or not in a tragic story)
  2. A motive: which explains why the goal is important. A motive also creates suspense that helps the listeners identify with the character.
  3. Who: stories need characters, people that we can understand and identify with.
  4. A conflict: something that blocks the character from reaching their goal.
  5. Risk and danger:  involved in resolving the conflict in order to achieve the goal.
  6. Struggle: when we know what people are up against our emotions are engaged.
  7. Some detail: (but not too much) just enough so we can relate to and create a picture in our minds of the characters and the situation

In summary; Interesting characters have a goal that is important to them and relevant to you (the listener) blocked by some combination of problems and conflicts that the character has to struggle around or past or through facing risk and danger to achieve their goal.

Below is a quick checklist of the elements to include in your next story to ensure your message sticks.

  1. Be clear on who the main character is.
  2. Describe their character traits that make them interesting to the listener.
  3. Be clear on what their goal is – the thing they need to get or achieve.
  4. Why the goal is important. What is their motive?
  5. What is the conflict? What are the problems that block them.
  6. Include elements of risk and danger.
  7. How does the character struggle to overcome risk, danger and conflict?
  8. Include enough detail to be real and compelling while keeping the story as succinct as possible.

If you don’t include the 8 points above then your listener does one of two things.

  1. Make up their own version to fill in any gaps which may involve assumptions, distortion of the information and misunderstandings.
  2. Cannot make enough sense of the information so just disengages. They just ignore you.

We are hardwired to think and learn from storytelling. And with 100,000s of years of practice we are already masters at telling stories.

And in a massively competitive environment, where we are constantly bombarded with advertising messages, the better our storytelling skills are – the more chance we have of making our important message stick. Storytelling is a skill worth practicing.

You can also hear the whole session from Kendall here. And for more information about storytelling training and coaching you can email me.

*Thanks @CatherineRaynor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *