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Storytelling: Why do stories work?

By Romy Craig

Stories are a powerful way to connect. Our shared love of stories is a fundamentally human trait. Romy Craig explores why storytelling works, and how we can use it for memorable communication.

From the very earliest age, stories shape the way we understand the world and influence the codes our brains use to work out where everything fits. As very young children, stories grow our language skills, and help us to develop empathy and to process feelings. They introduce us to people, places and things we don’t encounter in our day-to-day lives.

But despite this way of learning being innate to all of us, so often we act as if the best way for adults to learn new things at work is to throw lots of information at them with little context or narrative. It doesn’t engage us, it bores us. A deluge of information typically fails to help us engage with an essential or beneficial purpose. And it takes far more effort for our brains to process.

Storytelling in action

Apple’s Mother Nature advert is a great example of this sharp contrast between listing facts and telling a story.

The 5-minute film communicates the progress Apple has made towards becoming carbon neutral. They had some impressive stats, but if those had been presented without any context it would be hard to understand why they were impressive. The communication would feel dull and dry.

So instead Apple created a scene where Mother Nature visits for an annual audit. The video uses tension (would anything they had done be good enough?), mystery (who was the visitor causing so much initial anxiety?) and ultimately triumph, when the Apple team shares progress that even Mother Nature is satisfied with.

To the average consumer, this gets the message across that Apple is fully committed to carbon neutrality, cares about the environment and is making big changes to reach a challenging goal. It’s unlikely that a video of an exec telling people that Apple had directed more than 40,000 metric tons of electronic scrap to recycling in 2022 would have created this understanding.

Why do stories work?

Two studies from Stanford University illustrate the impact of storytelling.

The first1 tested out participants’ recall, comparing words when presented as a list, or within a narrative. For longer-term recall, just 13% remembered the list, while a staggering 93% remembered the narrative.

The second is an exercise carried out in Chip Heath’s ‘Making Ideas Stick’ class2 where students are asked to give a one-minute speech on why nonviolent crime is/isn’t a problem in the US. After they’ve heard the speeches, the audience are asked to record every idea they remember. On average, a student uses 2.5 statistics in their speech, and around 1 in 10 will use a story. A recall test showed that just 5% of those listening remembered any of the statistics (even 10 minutes after they’ve been heard), but 63% of them remember the stories.

Stories work. But why? For lots of fascinating reasons! We’ll recommend some further reading at the end of this article if you want to delve deeper into the subject, but in brief, here are four big reasons why messages in stories resonate and stick...

1. Stories put things in context

Stories bring meaning to our list of facts, our key actions or process flows. They provide a 'why', and give us a way to connect things. They help to understand how everything relates to a bigger picture, and to things we already understand. This eases the effort of learning something new and gives us a seamless way to link theory and practice.

2. Stories make our minds work in the right way

Lots of fascinating research has been done on the impact that stories have on our brain, showing just why they work as a form of communication. Did you know that hearing a story can create cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin in the brain?3 These chemicals help us remember, empathise and keep engaged. In addition to this, working through a story takes us through that situation in our mind, and amazingly, when we do that, we call up exactly the same parts of the brain as we would if we were doing that thing for real.

3. Stories help us to simulate real experiences

A story gives us a risk-free way to simulate a situation, and work through how we’d act and react if that situation were to happen to us.4 We see what emotions the situation throws up and can plan strategies to manage them if needed. We can see where problems may arise and even start to build skills – a review of many studies5 showed that mentally practising something creates around two thirds of the benefits of physically doing it!

4. Stories entertain!

Taking us back to the origin of stories – they have always been used to communicate information in a way that entertained people. Whether through a cave painting showing where food could be found, a medieval morality play, or TV series such as It’s a Sin teaching the realities of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, or Sex Education making viewers think twice about sexual harassment, the messages hit with impact.

The best stories engage us with tension, drama, redemption, heroes and villains. We feel rewarded for reading, hearing or watching them and the emotions they build ensure they’re something we continue to remember, far more than that list of essential tasks ever could be.


If you’re interested in finding out more about storytelling, here’s some further reading:

How Stories Change the Brain

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

Storytelling That Moves People

The Science Behind The Art Of Storytelling

What Makes Storytelling So Effective For Learning?

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck by Chip and Dan Heath

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