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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  • 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.

  • Him Again

    Just got here and in passing possibly missed the critical point here:
    It isn't stories that change people - it is the fablor - the one who creates them that makes the magic and they are as rare as unicorn horns - even I have only ever found one - a storyteller that is, not a unicorn horn........

  • Jason Thibeault

    I couldn't agree more with this article, especially with the line, "Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story." Stories are containers for personal identification. In fact, whether it's an ad or a piece of fiction, stories help us define who we are by giving us a way to compare ourselves to the story's protagonist. I believe that effective storytelling will becoming marketing's biggest weapon but only when the storytelling is the point of the communication. If the product remains the focus, the storytelling falls flat. Businesses have to realize they are selling content. Once the content is "sold," (once the consumer has made the connection with the story via its actions, characters, or resolutions), the product is "sold" as well. I wrote about this in my blog:


    I'm going to update my piece to reference this. Great job.

  • Tim

    The great Advertising agencies of the last 50 years have been good at this very thing. Think of Apple Macs Macintosh launch ad or countless other campaigns - great stories were their day to day bread and butter. It's only in the fast few years everyone has go sidetracked by technology and the social media gurus, with their talk of multimedia 'conversations' (not that they are bad in themselves but the tendency is claim they are the be all and end all of marketing).

  • Neil Davidson

    Jonathan Gottschall’s
    article starts with “Without a compelling story, we are told, our product,
    idea, or personal brand, is dead on arrival”.


    This is a very ‘business-centric’
    take of the ‘value of story’ at a very low level of system benefit – yes, it
    might be effective for specific vested interests, but imagine if we elevated
    the objective to be ethical whole system outcomes, rather than competitive individual


    The article continues “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…”


    There is another element
    not mentioned here, and that is (my construct) that data in context is
    information, information in context is knowledge, and knowledge in context is
    wisdom – stories provide knowledge in a rich systems context, not just linear
    streams of systematic facts out of context!


    He asks “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?”
    and later refers to it as “the NEW science of storytelling”.


    Spoken words were transcribed into
    written texts for the major religions thousands of years ago (and have been
    re-interpreted numerous times for competitive marketing advantages between
    religions ;-)


    He continues “fiction seems to be more
    effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to
    persuade through argument and evidence” this is evident in how many religions,
    still convinced by the stories, can reject  the science and evidence of climate change and
    other compounding system problems.


    Indigenous peoples have used stories for
    millennia, for more than just marketing some guru’s vision! Indigenous Australians
    developed cultural narratives based on deep system’s understanding and slow
    knowledge formation (40-60,000 years) to inform their cultural philosophy, and developed
    a theology grounded in (real, not fictional) ecology to educate their people in
    the imperatives of survival.

    They knew the ‘facts’ – their version of
    the ecological systems’ science we are just catching up with – based on deep observation,
    trial and error (sounds like the scientific method!); yet still they chose to
    use story to communicate. That is, they invoked imaginary powers and used theology
    to explain the rules, not the facts of the ecology which was to them
    self-evident. As they recognised their existence was interdependent the two
    were in lock-step.


    If we are serious about transformational
    change, then I believe we must engage communities in co-creating new cultural
    narratives, created with our modern view of the science of the systems we live
    in (and will die in if we do not change our ways).


    Such a model should adopt the indigenous
    ‘keep all alive’ theology, and the approach of common story with multiple
    levels of meaning, where progression to the next level of meaning is through
    asking the right questions and being referred to the higher level knowledge
    custodians – not those peddling products or services for personal gain.


    Then, maybe, sometime in the
    future, our great-great-great-great-grandkids will be hearing "Once upon a

  • Him Again

     Hi Neil, No "Once upon etc..." will be as good as dead inside 15 years. There will be nobody to read, much less write great fables.
    The NWO have effectively dumbed down the population world-wide so effectively, that recently I read and corrected, a thesis by a purportedly expert linguist.
    50 years ago, it would have graded a "C" - at best a "B-minus". It doesn't really matter, as the constructor (certainly not a writer per se), will only have an audience based on at best, the "Star Wars" super-video-comics.
    Hollywood knows the future - they bought a good deal cheap - only a few billion(?) for re-runs and character rights..............