Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon

Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says science backs up the long-held belief that story is the most powerful means of communicating a message.

In business, storytelling is all the rage. Without a compelling story, we are told, our product, idea, or personal brand, is dead on arrival. In his book, Tell to Win, Peter Guber joins writers like Annette Simmons and Stephen Denning in evangelizing for the power of story in human affairs generally, and business in particular. Guber argues that humans simply aren’t moved to action by "data dumps," dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with "Once upon a time…"

Plausible enough. But claims for the power of business storytelling are usually supported only with more story. Guber, for example, backs up his bold claims with accounts of how he, or one of his famous friends, told a good story and achieved a triumph of persuasion. But anecdotes don’t make a science. Is "telling to win" just the latest fashion in a business world that is continually swept with new fads and new gurus pitching the newest can’t-miss secret to success? Or does it represent a real and deep insight into communications strategy?

I think it’s a real insight. I’m a literary scholar who uses science to try to understand the vast, witchy power of story in human life. Guber and his allies have arrived through experience at the same conclusions science has reached through experiment.

Until recently we’ve only been able to speculate about story’s persuasive effects. But over the last several decades psychology has begun a serious study of how story affects the human mind. Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

What is going on here? Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? The psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds "radically alters the way information is processed." Green and Brock’s studies shows that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer "false notes" in stories—inaccuracies, missteps—than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.

And, in this, there is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.

This is exactly Guber’s point. The central metaphor of Tell to Win is the Trojan Horse. You know the back story: After a decade of gory stalemate at Troy, the ancient Greeks decided they would never take Troy by force, so they would take it by guile. They pretended to sail home, leaving behind a massive wooden horse, ostensibly as an offering to the gods. The happy Trojans dragged the gift inside the city walls. But the horse was full of Greek warriors, who emerged in the night to kill, burn, and rape.

Guber tells us that stories can also function as Trojan Horses. The audience accepts the story because, for a human, a good story always seems like a gift. But the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.

Guber’s book is relentlessly optimistic about the power of story to persuade. But as the bloody metaphor of the Trojan Horse suggests, story is a tool that can be used for good or ill. Like fire, it can be used to warm a city or to burn it down. Guber understands this, but he emphasizes story’s ability to bring on change for the better. His book is about people who tell good stories to overcome resistance, usually for laudable reasons. But, approached from a slightly different angle, Tell to Win is a book is about highly capable, experienced professionals suckering for story over and over (and over) again.

So there are two big lessons to take from Guber’s book and from the new science of storytelling. First, storytelling is a uniquely powerful form of persuasive jujitsu. Second, in a world full of black belt storytellers, we had all better start training our defenses. Master storytellers want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda. Yes, we need to tell to win, but it’s just as important to learn to see the tell coming—and to steel ourselves against it.

The new gospel of business storytelling offers a challenge to common views of human nature. When we call ourselves Homo sapiens, we are arguing that it is human sapience—wisdom, intelligence—that really sets our species apart. And when we think we can best persuade with dispassionate presentation of costs and benefits, we are implicitly endorsing this view. But we are beasts of emotion more than logic. We are creatures of story, and the process of changing one mind or the whole world must begin with "Once upon a time."

Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington and Jefferson College and is the author The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.

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  • Sorry I can't agree that science has proven this yet. However some people are currently working in oral storytelling research to determine it's influence on society. Very interesting question! His argument is persuasive but us storytelling researchers have a lot of unanswered questions remaining. I enjoyed the book, very good read for general reader.

  • Thanks for the reminder about the Trojan Horse, great analogy and I tell my own Odysseus story often...that will help. Loved your book - thank you for your great work.

  • "Master storytellers want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda." Shhh don't tell! ---Oliver Stone

  • Thank you for this. As a professional ghostwriter, I'm helping entrepreneurs and solopreneurs write their stories. Cheers!

  • Peter

    I absolutely agree with the article. Human being just like to hear an justification for anything. Unfortunately, many people misuse the technique of story telling. Just read the newspaper and you will know what I mean. Latest example is the conflict in Syria. The US claims that the government of Syria used chemical weapon, while Russia says that the opposition applied these instruments. So which story do you believe?

  • Blissification

    Stories as Trojan Horses used to hook audience time and attention: why didn't I think of this? Consider this strategy implemented. 

  • Jenny

    Compelling stories tug on the readers' heartstrings or make them question their own viewpoint on a topic. Storytelling is the ultimate weapon because it can emotionally or mentally alter someone's thoughts.

  • Julie Ricard

    Story telling is crucial to the success of a project. However, the quality of the idea is also essential. Many projects with a great presentations fail because the story was compelling but it was nothing more than an empty shell. Some great ideas fail to even materialize because they did not come with a compelling story. I think that only great ideas with an inspirational presentation will lead to great success.

  • Thomas Wooldridge

    story telling is what keeps the audience engaged.  When speaking have it relatable to your audience

  • Mark

    Yeah but what about the majority of people who fall into the "tl;dr" category? They don't want anything to conflict with their echo chamber. The lack of attention spans is killing innovation and delight.

  • Randy Yu

    Thank you very much for sharing. I highly appreciate the emphasis on the primary human feelings that is constantly ignored in the fast-paced business world. When told with sincerity, stories are true gifts for all. 

  • Amanda Burrell

    I really love this article, it ties in perfectly with what we (The content Maketing Association) have been discussing recently. We created a great info-graphic that discusses the Power of
    Story Telling. It ties in perfectly with your piece, and looks at characters,
    heros and plot lines that all go to create an engaging story. 

    >> http://www.the-cma.com/news/se....


    Another piece of extra reading is a feature by Jon King from Story
    Worldwide that discusses the greatest story tellers…


    According to legendary filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn, a great
    story consists of the following:

    1. Introduce a character

    2. Put him up a tree

    3. Throw rocks at him

    4. Bring him down again


    Read the article in full >> http://www.the-cma.com/news/ch....

  • Guest

    With the words "Once Upon a Time", we exit our
    "rational" neocortex", and enter our subconscious brains,
    opening us up to 100,000 years of ancestors, and therefore the
    "archetypes" that make us what we are, whether our "rational"
    brains like to believe or not. Any scientist will tell you that our brains have
    not appreciably changed/evolved structurally or chemically in 50,000 years. The
    templates/archetypes for stories that our ancestors told 50,000 years ago still
    work today to excite, frighten, please, motivate and inspire us. We just have
    different "window dressing" on them like cell phones, skyscrapers and
    cars. Star Wars with all its space ships, robots and lasers is about the same
    fundamental things as "Lord Of The Rings", its just window dressing.
    The marketing we receive today is just small snippets of these old stories. 99%
    of people (or more) are completely unconscious to it. They tell stories that
    appeal to our unconscious, to these old brains, to our unevolved brains, and
    help us feel part of a larger story. Our brains release chemicals (anxiety,
    fear, pleasure, etc.), and we make decisions based on those stories, just as we
    did when we sat around campfires, starved or were chased by animals 50,000
    years ago. The greatest thing we can learn is that mankind is incredibly
    predictable. Those stories were necessary for survival 50,000 years ago. Today,
    those stories in commercials create feelings and subconscious thoughts that are
    harnessed. While we believe we have an incredibly advanced civilization and
    have evolved into higher beings, NOTHING HAS CHANGED, except marketing folks
    have gotten incredibly good at DISTRACTING US FROM THE FACT THAT NOTHING HAS
    CHANGED, so we part with our money easily to remain part of THE STORY!

  • Digitaldoc69

    Yes, well said!  Telling the story and creating a magical world inside others' heads is about creating an idea virus that spreads and infects other minds for better or for worse....think religion....a lot of us were told stories as children that makes NO rational sense, BUT the idea of God, heaven, an afterlife plays to our emotions, hence the stickiness of it.  This is why we still have tribal behavior and why God won't go away.....we like being part of the herd when we think it protects us and offers us meaning.