How storytelling changes minds and behaviors

There’s a lot of confusion about “storytelling.”

Just the other day I was telling someone that I do workshops around storytelling and they responded, “Ah, storytelling. That’s the big buzzword these days, isn’t it?”

I politely laughed and tried not to take it personally that they’d just insulted my life’s work, but in my head I was thinking, “Buzzword?! Storytelling isn’t a buzzword! Story is at the heart of every single communication. It’s at the heart of every single organization!”

I know that sounds dramatic, but I stand by it. Here’s why.

Every organization—and every communicator in it— exists to change something.

Maybe you want to change people’s behaviors so they make a purchase or a donation or act differently today than they did yesterday. Or maybe you want to change minds, beliefs and attitudes to get people to support a cause, listen to a message, or be more engaged at work.

Whatever the goal, organizations exist to create change— and communicators exist to help them do it.

If your communications aren’t driving change, you aren’t doing your job.

So how do we create real change?

Well, spoiler alert, it’s storytelling. But before we jump into how to tell a story, it’s important to first understand why we need it in the first place.

[Want to learn more about using storytelling to drive change?
Click below to learn more about my next workshop on May 2 in Geneva.]

Story drives decision-making.

Why do we even need story? Why not just lay out the facts and let people draw the obvious conclusion?

Because that’s not how human beings work.

As much as we like to believe we’re rational creatures, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Study after study shows that decision-making is emotional, not logical, and that people often act irrationally.

Think about your own decision-making processes. Let’s use buying a shirt as an example.

Chances are, when you saw the shirt, two things happened. The first was that you looked at the price tag, thought about how often you’d wear the shirt and did a very logical calculation about how much value you’d get from it for the price.

But the second thing that happened is much more subconscious and much more powerful. When you saw the shirt, you likely also saw a snapshot of your life with that shirt in it.

Maybe you saw yourself wearing the shirt to a special event, or to work. Maybe you imagined the compliments you’d get when you wore it, or imagined how well it would travel without getting wrinkled.

Regardless of what you saw, you didn’t buy a shirt. You bought a story. You bought the story that ran through your head about what that shirt would bring you.

And you’re not alone.

Because in general, people don’t buy products or services, they buy a story about what those products and services will do for them.

People don’t buy products or services, they buy a story about what those products and services will do for them.

Now, you might be thinking, “Ok, that’s interesting, but I’m not trying to sell products or services. I work for a non-profit,” or “I work in internal communications.”

Here’s why I’m talking about sales. If you communicate on behalf of an organization, you are selling something: you’re selling ideas.

Every communication is an exchange. No matter what kind of communications you do, you’re trading your message for your audience’s time and attention. And, if you’re doing it right, you’re also trading it for their action.

So if we know we’re selling ideas and we know that people don’t buy ideas, they buy a story, we start to see why story is so important in our communications.

Storytelling is scientifically proven to change attitudes and behaviors.

I’ll cover the “how” of storytelling in another post, but it’s first important to understand why storytelling is so effective at driving change.

Specifically, I want to geek out about the science of storytelling.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you felt completely immersed in it? Like you forgot you were sitting in a theatre with 50 other people, or you looked up from your book and hours had passed?

Well, there’s a term for that. It’s called narrative transportation.

Narrative transportation theory proposes that when people lose themselves in a story, their attitudes and intentions change to reflect that story.

There has been a lot of research done about narrative transportation theory to understand why story has that power. Studies have found that when people are immersed in a story, their brains respond to the events in the story as if they were experiencing them. To put it another way, when you’re lost in a story, your brain actually thinks what’s happening in the story is happening to you!

When people lose themselves in a story, their brains respond as if the story was happening to them.

Think about what that means. It means that as storytellers, we don’t just have the power to change minds, we have the power to change brains! How cool is that?

Story is easier to understand, remember and share than numbers.

As a consultant, I often find myself talking about story to decision-makers who, in their minds— and sometimes in their words— “don’t care about story.” They “just need the facts” and think that everyone else does too.

Well, with all due respect, they’re wrong.

Humans are hard-wired to understand story better than quantitative data. Our prehistoric ancestors were using story millions of years before numbers showed up. Even in our lifetimes, we heard and watched stories before we ever learned to count.

That said, numbers and stats can strengthen your narrative. In fact, when used to illustrate a problem, data gives our audiences a logical foothold to justify their emotional response to our story.

But it needs to be part of a wider narrative to give it context. Start with story and then use data to back it up.

Story is also proven to make information more memorable. Think back to the study done on how the brain experiences narrative transformation: of course you’ll remember something your brain thinks you experienced more than something you just heard or read.

Story is proven to be easier to remember than numbers and statistics.

Why is that important?

Because when we truly want to create change with our communications, it’s not just about passing our message— it’s about creating a response. Driving action. Changing minds, hearts and behaviors, permanently.

When our message is memorable, it’s also easier to share. Our audience becomes advocates. Our ideas spread— and we create the change we seek to make in the world.


Want to learn how to use storytelling to drive change?

Click below to check out my next storytelling workshop on May 2 in Geneva.