You’re in a conference room. The speaker is in front with a PowerPoint presentation, bombarding you with buzzwords and numbers. They’re supposed to make sense, but as the next stale slide plays, you realise that you’ve already forgotten the last.
A bunch of those details are probably at the back of your head, but you can’t seem to remember them only a few minutes later.
Now think about the last story you read. A week later, a friend asked you to summarise it and you found yourself recalling the story with ease. The sequence, the character names, perhaps even some small details you’d otherwise forget elsewhere, you remembered.
This disparity is because stories are far more memorable than another data point. Stories appeal to our senses and our emotions, not only drawing our attention more easily, but also leaving an impact on us as audiences.
This makes storytelling powerful in delivering any message. If you deliver a story right, as evidenced throughout history, it might last a lifetime.
The advent of stories
As social beings, we evolved to share our knowledge with our surrounding community to increase our chances of survival. With this need for communication, we developed language. With it came oral traditions, with stories being one of its oldest forms, which according to Melissa Mendoza’s The Evolution of Storytelling, was even older than written language itself.
Before written language, information had to be passed around through word of mouth from one individual to another. This information should have been important enough to have been passed down, maybe like dangerous locations near the ancient communities, or the weather patterns that would determine when fishing and farming should be done. However, such form of communication also has its limitations, one that is glaringly apparent in a game of Chinese Whispers.
In Chinese Whispers, also known as the Telephone Game, opposing groups must successfully pass a message in a chain, from the first person to the last, while preserving perfectly its contents. The challenge is how to avoid distortions in the message, caused by either mishearing it or failing to remember it correctly. According to a study conducted in Northwestern University in Illinois, our memory is a lot like this game.
Given this, how then do you preserve information without losing its most important points after being passed around too many times?
Simple: You add structure.
Why stories are good for remembering content
Going back to the scenario we set earlier, we know that information by itself is detached, often boring and easily forgettable despite its supposed importance. But when you wed information to the structure of a story, this changes. Vanessa Boris and psychologist Lani Peterson point out that details shared through stories are retained far longer and much more accurately. This applies even in a business context.
At its core, stories seek to establish connections with us, the audience. They seek to incite emotions by putting us in the perspective of the characters. They establish familiarity, which allows us to immerse ourselves in the narrative, and through that we can absorb and retain important details found within. A Harvard Business Review by Paul J. Zak mentions that empathising with the characters “motivates people to engage in cooperative behaviors” thereby instilling the message to be sent across.
Other stories take it a step further, imparting important lessons, whether moral or practical, but always relevant to the target audience. These can be seen most especially in mythology and fables, which have withstood the test of time and are still shared to this day.
Why stories last a lifetime
Simply put, stories last a lifetime because of their impact on us.
Stories, as mentioned earlier, are supposed to tug at our heartstrings and make us feel various emotions. Numbers, charts, names, and dates – these don’t offer any meaning to us unless we find ourselves involved in them somehow. Hence, the immersive narrative.
To put yourself in the story would mean you wouldn’t only be thinking and forcing yourself to remember information—it means that you would sense everything for yourself. You’d see, hear, smell, and feel your surroundings. You’d experience the events unfurl, sequence by sequence. And with us humans being time-oriented, chronology also helps us remember everything in better lenses.
Events that we had experienced in our lifetime, fond or otherwise, we would remember more vividly the stronger the emotions they evoked in us. The same goes for stories heard and stories read, which is why there are numerous movies and books that have stuck with us from childhood and we still somehow remember how they all go.
For instance, Walt Disney, dubbed by many as one of the greatest storytellers of all time, brought to us memorable animations that we all still love and know to this very day. It was his drive to tell stories the most creative way he could that led to the birth of the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a story we still all know by heart that dates back to 1937. The film and all that he created after had forever changed the game of storytelling for filmmakers across the globe.
Stories like Disney’s were told so compellingly that they led us to somehow live them out as how life would imitate art. This is why horror movies would haunt you in your sleep, tales of adventure would drive you to go set out on your own, romance books would set expectations in love you’d possibly carry with you throughout the years, and even comedic pieces— you might find yourself fondly quoting them in your day to day lives.
In this sense, telling stories where people can feel, connect, and engage could leave a mark of permanence on your audience.
Walt Disney had greatly influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people through his amazing storytelling. It is a gross oversight to talk about good stories without mentioning the greatest storytellers themselves.
Today, those he had inspired continue on his legacy, giving us nothing but the best films and stories that we watch and re-watch, passed on from one generation to the next.
But of course there have been other greats who have shaken the world through their superior storytelling. We could not forget big names such as Steve Jobs, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Spielberg, Barack Obama and even William Shakespeare, who have carved their names permanently into our lives and the future generations.
Steven Spielberg, the most successful US box office director, took Hollywood to great heights with a massive number of timeless films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Jaws, and Indiana Jones. His visions for all the stories he directed marked a kind of ingenuity that inspired storytellers everywhere to be fearless in letting their creativity guide them.
Apart from the stories we see told through films, books, and music, one of the most powerful ways to tell stories is through oration.
Barack Obama is one of the world’s greatest orators, garnering millions of followers not just in the United States, but throughout the globe. Through his strong and emotionally captivating speeches, he had reached the hearts of many, who in turn had put their faith in him.
Obama has since been considered to be one of the most followed thought leaders, who through his storytelling, has presented many ideas, beliefs, and calls to action against glaring issues around the world such as racism, which had been a personal battle he faced too.
“This is your victory,” he told the Americans in his inauguration speech—a message to them that his own winning was not for him, but for those he had sworn to serve. He was met by a roaring crowd, pulled in by the conviction that bled through his story—one that hit too close to home for many.
Storytelling as a necessity in marketing
Storytelling is the best way to make your meaningful work reach others. Through storytelling, your audience will be able to connect, engage, empathise, and most importantly, remember your message.
There are various mediums in which you could tell your story. While it is important to seek uniqueness in expressing your stories, remember that what matters is how you immerse your audience in your story, and let them leave with an important message that you want them to carry with them throughout their lifetime.
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” – Steve Jobs.
Like Steve Jobs and others, telling stories in your content is the best way to build your brand and convert your audience into loyal customers.