Storytelling Infuses Your Message with Meaning and Emotion

by Diana Drake

Madison Busby, a freshman at Raymore-Peculiar High School in Raymore, Missouri, U.S., recently won the national championship in storytelling at the National Speech and Debate Association tournament held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For these events, students use a manuscript often taken from a children’s book or folklore, to bring a story alive for the audience. With drama and a colorful delivery, Busby won for her retelling of the book Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae.

Despite Busby’s gangly, glowing performance (see Related Links for the video), many people feel that the art of storytelling is getting lost in an era of instant digital communications. For centuries, storytelling has been used as a way to connect with each other – but depth and delivery have been replaced by more momentary texting and posting.

Filmmaker Murray Nossel recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM to talk about his book Powered By Storytelling: Excavate, Craft and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication. Nossel, who also co-founded Narativ, which teaches storytelling techniques to executives at companies like Disney and Time Warner, believes that storytelling is an especially powerful form of communication and one that we should all learn to embrace in business and in life.

“Our brains are hard-wired for storytelling,” said Nossel. “In order to survive, we needed to pass on information important for our survival to our next of kin. We did that through stories. We needed to share with our clan just what kinds of things to look out for in the world that were dangerous and what kinds of things were key to our survival.”

Below are five key takeaways from Nossel’s interview.

  1. IQ and EQ. “Storytelling not only involves the intellectual function, but it also touches something much deeper inside of us, which is the heart,” said Nossel. “It’s something that connects mind to heart. That’s why it’s such a powerful mode of communication.”
  1. Where have all the stories gone? Nossel explained that storytelling has “been lost by many people because we often live in the illusion that we are connecting with and communicating with other people in a deep fashion because we have the ability to communicate instantly with one another, let’s say through a text. But is true connection really happening here? I would say not. The other thing is, you can put up a bunch of stuff on your social media page and say, “Well, that’s my story.” But is it actually a story? No, it’s an assembly of data about yourself that people can construct into a story if they like. But it’s not necessarily a story.”
  1. All is not lost. “I think we’ve lost our natural inclination to be able to tell stories. But this can be retaught because the hard wiring and the pathway is already there in the brain to be able to do so,” Nossel noted.
  1. Inside business. “Companies are increasingly recognizing how storytelling affects their bottom line,” said Nossel. “For example, one of my clients is Craig Kostelic, who’s one of the chief business officers at Condé Nast publishing. Craig, who used to be in charge of the food innovation group, has been given three other publications, so he now has four separate brands to bring together. He has to be able to sell this combined brand, which is now called a lifestyle brand, to the companies that advertise in Condé Nast publications. He has to be able to come up with a new story about what the merger of these brands means. The more able he is to come up with a narrative that connects the dots of these different brands, the more people are going to be convinced that he has something coherent.”
  1. Make it personal. The more personal your story, often the more impactful it will be to your listeners. Identify a personal experience related to your product, service or situation (make sure it’s truthful), and tell your story in a creative, compelling way. Keep it simple! Soon enough, the PowerPoint slides and talking points from your formal presentation will seem like less effective ways to reach your audience or your potential client. When something happens to us, we tell a story about it,” wrote Nossel in the McGraw Hill Business Blog. “Stories help us make sense of the world and they help us share our experiences with one another in a way that is relatable. Our stories contain universal truths that we all can connect with.”

The bottom line: it’s scientifically proven that we will learn better if someone’s words have meaning and emotion. According to Annie Murphy Hall, the author of Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, the neurons in our brain that fire when we are listening to a story are the same ones that would be firing if we were actually living that story ourselves. Tell a strong, personal story and you’ll light up your audience’s brains.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

How do you feel about this idea of “true connection?” Do you think that you’re able to connect deeply with friends and family through texting and social media or have those links become more superficial? Is it simply that the definition of “connection” is changing with new and engaging technology?

When was the last time you told a story to communicate your message? When was the last time you heard a compelling story when someone was trying to get their message across? How effective were those experiences?

Practice your storytelling skills on this KWHS article or another one that you find interesting. Log in and tell a story in the comments section that helps communicate the message you are trying to convey.

5 comments on “Storytelling Infuses Your Message with Meaning and Emotion

  1. First of all I’d like to emphasize: what a nice competition! Storytelling, as said by Nossel, is an ability inherente to us, humans. It’s was a key part to our survival and growth. And in fact, the way we massively communicate now, digitally, makes the storytelling be left aside. Principally because we (in general) get lazy to write whole stories and also, it’s almost impossible to pass as much emotion as in a real conversation. Yes, there’s the option of using voice mails, but people rather not use them too much. So, little by little, we subconsciously are not anymore sharing our life experiences to others, at least not in a way that makes them feel like if they were there. We’re keeping our stories to us, telling just brief summaries or just citing them.
    But, besides being almost a “stinct” to us, what makes storytelling be so important and useful? Well, first of all, as said by Nossel, it attracts people by their emotional parts. Facts can inclinate and also convince, but our emotions are what really moves us, they make us grab and idea with all our strength and conviction. Also, if we’re talking about a personal statement, it acts similarly to an authority argument, because you’re saying something that happened to you and anyone knows it better than yourself.
    I like to tell about me, my stories. When with friends, I love to be asked about my life so I may tell them interesting experiences. Being only 17 years old it may seems arrogant of me to say that, but I believe that I’m considerably experienced. I moved from my home and started to live without my parents in another state when I was 15, and well, manythings happened since so. It’s beautiful to truly share about you to someone because if the story is absorbed, a part of this person, even if a very small one, begins to “be you”. And so, adding this philosophical part, that you can agree or not (it’s more personal, I think.) to the well known efficiency of storytelling as a influentiotion tool, I always try to use it, be for giving an advice or to convince someone to join a cause.
    In Projeto Espalhando Sorrisos – PES – (Project Spreading Smiles), the biggest social project that I coordinate we use storytelling a lot. In our posters there are depositions of volunteers, about a certain Action (as we call our visits to orphanages, hospitals, elders house’s and etc), telling what they felt and how it was. I still remember very well when I realized the true power of storytelling: it was in PES yearly meeting, in which many of the 200 volunteers went. I, as one of the directors, helped in the “script” that the founder of PES would follow in the presentation. But we made a mistake: we prepared for an event of about two hours, and she finished the “script” in thirty minutes. So she called me and asked for me to go into the stage and borrow time, a long time…I was not emotionally prepared for that, but I’m quite used to public speaking so this problemem I could manage.But she had said almost everything that I could say. So I got up there and started to give some details, some numbers… well, I won’t say that it had zero effect, but it’s impact was not very big, and than I started to talk about every PES’s Action. I had gone (and planned) almost all since so, so could tell in details how they were, the problems we passed, the conclusions and learnings we obtained; like in the time that I scheduled an Action in an orphanage that was in another city, because I had just moved from another state and did not know that “Maracanaú” was a city outside “Fortaleza” (our city), and so we had to rent a bus, thing that we decided do in every Action (but now we do not pay for it because a certain company donates the service to us). And I was trying to do it with a little of humor, because I think that it’s good to help people to stay atent to what you’re saying. And in the middle of this experiences sharing I had one of the greatest visions of my life: a gleam in the eyes of every person inside that theater! Now they were really into it, some remembering how all of that was, some imaging how would be to participate of those Actions, and all in sync, think that all of that was great! So, when I was “out of gas”, other volunteers got there and started sharing what they did in the Project and why they found it incredible. There were even a guy that made a stand up (comedy show) telling the situation in which he joined PES and how much he grew in it, and then another great epiphany for me: the good that PES caused was not just in the Actions’s targets (orphanages…) but also in each one that participate or even saw what PES did. This meeting was incredible, and it was completely due to storytelling, and it wasn’t in the “script”, just happened.
    We saw how storytelling can be good. But how can it be bad? It’s certainly not an “double-edged sword” (in Brazil we use this expression for something that can cause good or bad to the user, depending on how he uses it), but if made without any care can seems to be something egocentric. For those who are watching it can think that you’re just talking about yourself like if you were the center of the universe. After all, Storytelling is an amazing toll to communicate, but it has to be done in the right way.

  2. I love the art of storytelling, as it helps us to better understand ourselves and the world around us. In particular, stories that convey feelings of anxiety and uncertainty speak the loudest for me. Humans tend to remember negative experiences more vividly mainly because we picture the regret of failing to do something. One such instance that I remember precisely characterizes the struggles I had at my first debate tournament:

    — Debate-o-phobia —

    We got off the bus only to find a shabby, white building in front of us. Was this the destination? Nonetheless, hundreds of people crowded inside to escape from the windy, torrential rains outside. Everyone rushed towards small tables and settled down immediately. People started scribbling down notes, and rows of blurry hands moved left to right on papers. Others gesticulated with their flashcards while confidently conversing with their companions. A few individuals ran their fingers down each of the fifty columns on a spreadsheet, their eyes scanning to see if their debate would be at 2:00 PM instead of 1:00 PM.

    I paced around the room in circles for minutes at a time, rubbing my teary eyes.
    “Get working and stop wandering around like nothing is happening!” my partner Ben shouted, stomping his feet on the carpet floor.
    He dragged me back to the table, plopping me in front of a puzzling research packet. I read the large stack, my eyes wandering randomly on the text. With one hand, I ran a blue highlighter absentmindedly over the words. My hands trembled every time I tried flipping the pages; their edges sliced my fingers. When I attempted to write, my hand could only produce deformed letters. Gaining nothing, I scratched my hair into tangled strands. As I took a deep breath, my stomach growled in response. I chomped on a cookie, but I could not taste anything. It was 12:43 PM. My palms started sweating, and my pulse beat audibly. My legs shook uncontrollably, and my voice quavered when I spoke. The butterflies in my stomach pounded me, and my lips dried up. The clock ticked one minute closer to my debate.

    Defying my partner’s command to work, I fled from the room with my backpack. I went out expecting to get drenched when only a raindrop grazed my forehead. A refreshing breeze feathered my cheeks in place of abrasive winds. I looked ahead, and the sky was no longer a dismal gray. Out over the vast field, the sun started peeking out from behind distant mountains. The sunlight turned my expressionless face into a faintly smiling one. I inhaled the misty air around me and trudged towards the expansive field in front of me. My hands still clenched a hardcover notebook, which I let plummet towards the ground. I temporarily abandoned all my doubts towards failure. The faint call of birds welcomed me, singing me a dulcet tune. An eerie silence followed with more raindrops wettening my palm. With only minutes to spare, I brought myself back into reality and reentered the building. I quickly tagged along with Ben towards our debate.

    Ben firmly held the door open for me, and we marched into the debate room. Our opponents already seated themselves, their eyes narrowing at our presence. Ben and I marched pompously past them, completely averting our attention. Two judges sat at the front in computer chairs, their legs comfortably crossed. The lead judge prompted the first speaker to stand up. He read through his speech on school vouchers, stuttering and fidgeting with his hands. Afterward, I challenged him with a meticulously planned question: “Doesn’t financial aid cover for most of the benefits school vouchers provide?” After a ten second pause, he strenuously swallowed and shook his head. I scored my first victory.

  3. True connections reside in relationships of mutual understanding and empathy with the people around you, and stories are the perfect catalysts to forging those deep connections. But in spite of the widely recognized value of story-telling and strong relational bonds, story-telling seems to be on the decline, and people have been quick to throw the improvement of technology under the bus and frame it as the culprit. But before we claim the successes of instant messaging and technological communication to be the root cause of modern society’s failure to effectively share stories, we must first ask ourselves: Does the problem result from the medium or the user?

    Oftentimes, the problem lies with the user. Technology and former traditions are not mutually exclusive, and though it may be tempting to simply text a friend rather than meet up at a Starbucks, the potential for current-day personal communication is still limitless. Just as owning a car doesn’t preclude someone from walking at their own pace to their favorite stores, texting and video calling don’t harm one’s ability to effectively converse in person. “True connections” are what one makes of them, and to that extent, every encounter, every Snapchat, and even every Facebook post holds promise in becoming a “true connection.” If interlocutors truly wish to connect, friendships and close relationships can still be formed even through technology. After all, cars don’t hinder a person from reaching their destination, so why should we view improvements in communication technology in the same light? If anything, technology connects people in non-superficial ways where it may otherwise have been impossible…

    For me, my story of technology begins with a few key examples of how social media and networking applications like Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, etc have helped me to maintain strong relationships across state and national boundaries. Not only increasing the scope of people I can chat with, the large variety of programs allow for increased depth of discussion, up-to-date stories, and stronger relationships by giving me the possibility to reach anyone in the world from my 15.6-inch Lenovo laptop screen. More importantly, these programs help me to connect with people that I rarely get the chance to see. Whether it’s an argument over epistemology and pragmatism with my debate friends, a discussion about the Aeneid with my classical peers, or even an exploration of unique tax fields for an intern group project, my friends and I are able to connect across the nation using the powers of technology. But in addition to connecting me to friends and loved ones, technology has given me the gift of being able to keep in contact with my grandparents, housed thousands of miles away in Shanghai, China. And though health problems and old age keep my grandparents from travelling to the United States to visit my cousins and I annually, instant messaging, telephone calls, and video chats allow me to keep in touch with my grandparents every weekend, and these experiences truly mean the world to both us and them. Regardless of if they’re cooking dumplings for dinner, winning large amounts of cash playing Mahjong with other elders, or even retelling a story about family history for the thousandth time, technology empowers me to see, hear, and experience the same things they do as if I were sitting on the couch beside them in their cozy tenth floor apartment. We joke, cry, and reflect on both macro-level political events such as Xi Jinping’s expansion of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and on micro-level personal experiences such as my summer intern orientation retreat, my morning cross-country practices and their struggles, and even my unique interests like solving the Rubik’s cube and sleight of hand magic. However, on special occasions, I’ll tell a different story, one devoid of words but full of emotion, telling my story through the medium of music as I walk over to the family piano and perform for my grandparents. Though I practice piano much less frequently now owing to my busy schedule, my grandparents are seemingly just as happy, if not happier, hearing my performance through a Skype call than when they heard me perform at Carnegie Hall. And in this regard, technology has been the messenger of ideas, both substantial and cultural, and its ability to connect families six thousand miles apart has been endearing both to me and my grandparents.

    But despite technology’s connecting prowess, texting and social media should not be viewed merely as connection tools; they also provide a platform on which people can relay heartfelt stories. In fact, sharing Madison Busby’s performance and her subsequent success across the nation would not have been possible without the universality of social media websites and the speed with which people immortalize experiences online. Though only heard in-person by family, friends, judges, and other competitors, Madison’s wonderful storytelling now has the ability to influence the lives of thousands, creating larger interest and ultimately larger stages for heartwarming narratives.

    People often say, “If there’s a will, there’s a way,” and I believe the idiom holds true in this context. Technology builds bridges where vast bodies of water and mountains previously acted as barriers, and though it may be easier to ignore someone in a technological setting than it is in real life, true connections are made evermore possible with social networking improvements.

    Finding stories we wish to tell and relaying them to an audience is not a difficult feat, but the hardest part is finding good listeners. So long as the recipients are engaged and active, each and every experience creates linkages through which we can converse, relate, and understand regardless of whether we tell stories through the spoken word or a digital connection. Even now, as we comment on KWHS’s articles, podcasts, and videos, we are sharing our stories, views, and beliefs about the world around us, and through these, we are connecting.

    Every person is a narrator. Every life is a story. And we…we just need to listen.

Leave a Reply

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