Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Power of Stories Part 2

The Power of Stories from a Psychological Perspective

People have been using stories to pass on information and wisdom since the beginning of time.

This ancient tradition of using stories extends from ancient nomadic oral cultures that do not even have a written language to the board meetings of the top CEOs in the world (Parkin 1). 

We can see the impact of stories historically, as well.  From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which communicated important values about abolition, to Subway’s commercial campaign using the story of Jared who lost over 200 pounds on his Subway diet (Heath 3094-3114), stories have impacted our society in powerful ways.  

People use stories to pass on the principles that are most important to them, and to motivate others to action.

Stories play a role in the psychological development of humans from the time we are very young (Gottschall 7).  Children spend the large majority of their time playing make-believe, and inventing creative imaginary stories.  

Something about stories grips us in a way that few other things do.  Even as adults, whether it is a story communicated through a song on the radio, in a book or magazine we read, in a TV show or movie we watch, even in a commercial, or just gossip at the office, stories impact almost every area of our lives, and they can be very effective in teaching and influencing people.

Peter Guber, who has a long list of accomplishments in the entertainment and business world including chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures and Mandalay Entertainment Group, as well as the co-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, a longtime professor at UCLA, contributor to the Harvard Business World, and a well-traveled speaker, wrote, 

“The Trojan Horse was a delivery vehicle in disguise.  So, too, are purposeful stories.  They cleverly contain information, ideas, emotional prompts, and value propositions that the teller wants to sneak inside the listener’s heart and mind.”  (23).

There are two distinct psychological advantages to telling stories.  

  1.  Stories engage your audience and...
  2. Stories help the audience remember what was said.

Both are important to communicate Biblical truth in our world, both to believers and to those who are lost.  

We want to communicate the gospel, but how do we do that?  

Two things need to happen if we are to engage our culture.  We have to get their attention and keep it. Stories can play an enormous role in both of these intentions. We have to communicate in an interesting, memorable way that will effectively communicate truth. 

If you want to grab and keep someone’s attention to communicate a message, tell a good story. 

Margaret Parkin mentions that because interactively listening to stories involves both hemispheres of our brain (the logical, analytical left side, and the feeling, intuitive right side), 

“Stories can somehow help us to bypass our normal, analytical functions; we actually become less critical, and more receptive to change and new ideas.”  (103)  

People like stories.  They are engaging.  You can communicate truth through a story to people who may not receive it any other way.  John Wayne once told Bodie Thoene, a well-known author of Christian fiction: “You can tell people what they need to hear, what you want them to hear.  But you gotta put it in a good story.” (Eble 156)

Of course, you could grab someone’s attention using techniques other than stories.  The value of stories, though, is in their ability to reach an apathetic, distanced or even hostile audience.  

Hitting a person with direct, cold, hard information right up front (which generally stimulates only the left-brain) makes the people in the audience immediately tune out if they are apathetic, or begin mentally judging, analyzing and arguing the information if they are hostile.  Stories, on the other hand, come in the back door, using Guber’s Trojan Horse method mentioned earlier.   

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath use the example of Stephen Denning who used stories to spur people on to action in his job at the World Bank.  
“If you make an argument, you're implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument—judge it, debate it, criticize it—and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story, Denning argues, you engage the audience—you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.” (3292-3294)
In their book called Speaking to Teenagers, Doug Fields and Duffy Robbins highlight the importance of illustrations in communicating the gospel by comparing straight content to spraying thirsty teenagers with a fire hose because they need water, or giving them glasses of water so that they can sip (132-133).  

In essence, that is exactly what stories do.  They package the content people so desperately need to hear in a receivable way.   Jesus is described as the Word become flesh in John 1:14.  Stories put flesh to the words and message we want to communicate so that people can understand the ‘invisible’ concepts by ‘visible’ examples.

Stories draw people into what speakers, communicators, and teachers are saying and engage them, but there is an additional benefit to using stories.  

A person is more likely to remember a point or lesson if a story is connected with it than if the point is stated by itself.

Speechwriter Jack Bergen in his foreword to Jim Holtje’s book, writes, 

“Because stories engage both the intuitive and the logical—the left and the right—segments of our brain, we are more likely to absorb and remember lessons via storytelling than through facts alone.”  (Holtje xvii)  

Holtje goes on to describe the effectiveness of using stories in the business world.  He speaks about the way we are hard-wired for stories, and since stories connect with us on a deeper level than facts or figures, even in a business context, people are more likely to act on and remember stories (2-5).

This is easy to test out.  Try to remember the sermon you heard on Sunday, and compare that to how well you can repeat the information in that, as opposed to how well you can repeat the information you saw in a movie you watched last month.  

Wilkinson highlights the fact that often we do not remember the three points of a sermon, but we remember the story (256).  Lessons are much more memorable when there are stories attached.

Peter Guber, in recounting the way he had used stories to influence in his colorful career, recalls, “I was stunned to discover how clearly I still remembered these stories, in some cases after forty or more years!  The precise dates and circumstantial details may have blurred in my memory, but the stories themselves remain resonant, clear, and actionable.  That alone is a tribute to telling to win!”  (15)

In The Seven Laws of the Learner, Bruce Wilkinson mentions that there are some universal receptors God has placed in all mankind to help us retain information (254).  

These receptors are transformational and cross-cultural, and one of them is presenting information through stories.  “Therefore,” he states, “never underestimate the value of stories and illustrations and parables.  Recast your information into a narrative and you may have made it indelible.” (256)  It works, not because we are tricking audiences into learning by telling stories, but because using stories is one of the primary ways God has designed our brains to remember information.

“God’s use of symbol and metaphor gives us a way to make connections and gain a deeper understanding of His truth.  When we write stories, we follow His model.” – Sharon Hinck. (Olson, Sjogren and Smith xvii) 

Some may think that it is a Christian virtue to stifle creativity when communicating the gospel, favoring plain speech over creative attempts.  However, one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind is creativity.  Christians are called to share the gospel with the world.  The Biblical examples and the psychological research that shows how stories engage listeners and foster better retention are clear reasons Christians should use stories as a means to communicate God’s truth to the world, both believers and nonbelievers.  There are many mediums Christians can use to do this: illustrations in teaching, fiction novels, biographies and autobiographies of strong Christian men and women, stories told through radio drama, books, and movies are all ways to reach out to the world through one of its best-loved diversions.  The results will be enough to demonstrate the undeniable power of story.

Works Cited:
The Holy Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Marketing, LLC, 2011.  Print.  King James Version.
Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Guber, Peter. Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. New York: Crown Business, 2011. Print.
Parkin, Margaret. Tales for Change: Using Storytelling to Develop People and Organizations. London: Kogan Page, 2010. Print.
Eble, Diane. Behind the Stories. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002. Print.
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, 2007. Kindle ebook file.
Robbins, Duffy, and Doug Fields. Speaking to Teenagers: How to Think About, Create, and Deliver Effective Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.
Holtje, James. The Power of Storytelling: Captivate, Convince, or Convert Any Business Audience Using Stories from Top CEOs. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Wilkinson, Bruce. The 7 Laws of the Learner. Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1992. Print.
Olson, Kathryn S., Caleb Sjogren, and Erin E. Smith. A Novel Idea: Best Advice on Writing Inspirational Fiction. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009. Print.

Speaking of stories, check out the My Choice Mini Adventures Facebook page to find some fun interactive stories where the readers make the decisions for the characters!

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