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Why Tell Stories?

The telling of stories, the desire to share our experiences, is what made us develop into a species with a spoken language. I think everybody has the capability of responding to a story on the deepest level. For that reason alone it’s important.

– Gayle Ross

Why Tell Stories?

People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell. It is faith that moves mountains, not facts… Faith can overcome any obstacle, achieve any goal. Money, power, authority, political advantage, and brute force have all, at one time or another, been overcome by faith. Story is your path to creating faith. – Annette Simmons

Story: a meaning-making, character-containing narrative in which speaker(s) and listener(s) imagine together as the storied situation transforms. “If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.” – Barbara Greene

At age one a baby can pretend to put a doll to bed. What does it mean that we spend about half our waking life in fantasy mode via daydreaming and a third of our entire life asleep dreaming stories? It means that human beings are two-legged procreators and transporters of stories. We are Homo narratus, with fictions that allow us to anticipate before we act and to reflect after we act.

Our best facts mean nothing at all without storied frameworks that give them meaning and context. Changing the story changes what facts mean. Actions result not from facts, but from what we tell ourselves the facts really mean. New facts offered without new stories are usually discounted.

Stories allow people to explore meanings and draw conclusions without being preached at. Our examples lead to their conclusions. Nobody is made wrong, yet actions and attitudes change.

Anecdotal stories can reveal and disarm the hearer’s silent objections by showing how the teller worked through them. Such stories offer more guidance than fixed rules that cannot handle conflict or paradox.

Persuasion and argument push, and people resist being pushed. Stories pull you in. They spread long after the effort required to cajole and manipulate has dissipated. A hearer beaten down with logic is less reliable ultimately than one who makes your story of why you act their own.

Stories about what’s relevant to listeners inspire trust. Especially honest personal stories that can make the connection that’s needed before anything else can happen. As Annette Simmons puts it, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a story is worth a thousand assurances.” They let you demonstrate, not just talk about, your trustworthiness and deep involvement with the cause.

A story character can present a different, attitude- and action-changing point of view more effectively than simply making an argument for it. It’s hard to empathize with an argument.

Stories can reach across cultural and political divides, opening common ground where the conservative and the radical, the materialist and the spiritualist, the dreamer and the cynic can meet.

They also allow unexpected, non-linear solutions not calculable with charts of data. New stories can bring fresh perspectives that shrink problems without having to rationalistically analyze them to death. Causal analyses that fail to take into account what people make of the causes doom themselves to irrelevant fact-chasing. They miss the need for new forward-looking visions that can motivate new attitudes and actions.

Stories are big-T True because, unlike the small-t truths of statistics and surveys, they capture the great multidimensional Truths of our existence. They show what is too complex to be charted.

Imaginatively living through future scenarios can give you more visceral, emotional, and intuitive information than purely distant cognitive strategic planning. (The audiences Johnny Cash imagined did not align with the target demographics cranked out by his record company. He quit and went on to win a lot of Grammys. The record company was sold to a competitor.)

Big picture stories rely less on planning than on connecting what people do to what they can create together. It’s one thing to get paid to hammer a nail, but another to know that nail helps build a city. Big picture stories give purpose to frustration and struggle.

A single story can exert enormous impact. Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized Union efforts during the American Civil War. The Kalevala, an epic woven of folktales, solidified the independence of Finland. Roots was the most-watched film of its day. (This power of story contradicts what Tolkien called Sarumanism: the belief that only money and might make important things happen.)

When President Kennedy stated, “We choose to go to the moon!” the naive thought him blinded by science fiction, ignorant of how symbols and aspirations–not facts and figures–drive us, especially in a “mythless” culture that leave huge voids of meaning. To act differently people must think and feel differently, and those require new stories that prompt and inspire.

Inspiration is key. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” not, “I am a victim.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs leaves out Fantasy. You can last three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food, but you can’t make yourself go one hour without a fantasy.

Prisoners fantasize. Poor children growing up in a dump also play there. People about to die imagine what death–supposed nonexistence–will be like. We imagine, therefore we are, and vice versa.

Maybe that’s why we evolved, or why our stories evolved us: not just for our own complexification, but for theirs. Maybe they use us to deepen and proliferate. Our stories might even outlive our species.

At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in the laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. Fantasists, whether they use the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist–and a good deal more directly–about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope. – Ursula K. LeGuin

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