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




32 things I have learnt this year

what I learnt2013 is almost over. Now is the time for quiet reflection on our achievements, beating ourselves up about the things we didn’t do and planning what we must achieve in 2014.

I’ve learnt a lot this year. Below is my list in no particular order.

  1. To be more thick-skinned. You can’t be all things to all people. Not everyone has to like you. If people don’t like you – its their problem.
  2. When people say they will ‘try’ to do something it really means that they can’t be bothered to do something. (Yoda was right – ‘Do. Or not do. There is no try’)
  3. Olives taste horrible. I keep checking. I have relearnt this again this year.
  4. Some people just drain your energy. Avoid them and spend time with people who give you energy (and you give energy to – in a positive energy exchange – yay).
  5. Hobbits are 3ft tall.
  6. I really can’t sing at all. And I really enjoy it so I’m going to keep doing it anyway.
  7. What people say and what people mean can be two different things. If a British person tells you that your idea is interesting they really mean that they think you are crazy.
  8. Sometimes we make bad decisions based on emotion. This is normal. We all do it. It’s just life. Just work to put the bad decision right.
  9. Given the opportunity always buy a stranger a gin and tonic.
  10. It’s easier to get from North London to Paddington by going to Ladbroke Grove and then walking. Its only 5 minutes walk. Who knew?!
  11. Never buy cheap porridge oats – it’s a false economy. I had to relearn this one too.
  12. A way of making decisions is using the 10/10/10 rule.  It helps us to think about how we feel about our decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now and 10 years from now.  It helps get perspective. I’ve used this a lot and its good.
  13. Worry about the things you can change and accept the things you can’t. I worried about turning 40 for ages. It was pointless. And it turns out that being 40 is fine.
  14. How to make cheese.  And that it’s not that straightforward to buy ash for the cheese on the internet because the internet thinks you might use it to make bombs – not cheese.
  15. The things that scare you most are the things that you should absolutely do.
  16. To appreciate whisky. In fact I love the stuff now.
  17. People and situations are not always what they seem.  And that’s ok.
  18. Awesome people find each other. If you are reading this you will know who you are.
  19. The kindness and compassion of strangers can be incredible. Be that kind stranger.
  20. Always wear waterproof mascara (or no make up) on a long haul flight. You will cry at films – and unless you are Alice Cooper – the Alice Cooper look is bad.
  21. The night buses in Argentina are fantastic. Who knew?
  22. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Just work really hard at being the best you that you can be.
  23. More people are making it up as they go along than you could possibly imagine. And that’s OK.
  24. Eating dinner in the dark is a learning experience. It’s harder and also funnier than you think and teaches you a lot more about human beings than just eating.
  25. If you travel on public transport, it will break at least half the time and you will get no refund or apology.
  26. Collaboration is good. It is not the same as decision by committee, which generally is very bad.
  27. I know the difference between rat poo and mouse poo (I could happily have gone through this year/my whole life without learning this).
  28. To construct sentences that do not need apostrophes because I am so bad at using apostrophes correctly.
  29. I know how to roast a turkey. I am actually now #princessofpoultry.
  30. Asking for forgiveness is normally better than asking permission. And it’s scary to do. (see point 15)
  31. Better to aim too high and miss the target than aim for something incremental and uninspiring and achieve it.
  32. A Snickers Duo bar is 8 and a half inches long.

If you are not learning – then what’s the point? What have you learnt this year that you would like to share?

See you in 2014.

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