The Best Way to Remember Anything
Let’s think back, for a moment, to something new that you learnt recently. Do you remember where it came from? Did you read it in a book? Hear it from a friend, maybe? Come across it in the media?
And how was it told to you?
Chances are, this fact that has stuck in your head and can be recalled within a moment, was first heard through a story.
It could be something you heard on the radio — the child who survived cancer because her father fought for an experimental stem cell therapy. Or a tale shared by a friend over dinner, something that happened to someone they knew, and did you know that was the law in this state?!
Why Storytelling is So Effective
When we read a list, or look at a table, facts and ideas are transferred into the language processing part of our brain where we decode words into meaning. But when we hear or read an interesting story, something completely different happens.
According to researchers in Spain, stories not only activate the language part of our brains, but all the other parts of the brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are activated as well.
Is Storytelling Just For Fun?
An evocative story activates the part of the brain concerned with smelling, eating, hiking, running – anything that you’re reading about, your brain is experiencing.
You know this from watching a good movie, or reading a good book — and the process is the same for nonfiction storytelling.
It’s no wonder then that storytellers make such good educators. It’s something that good school teachers know, and harness, to the benefit of their pupils. From the kindergarten teachers conveying everyday morals and lessons about kindness to others, simple ideas that become life-long lessons for the little ones. Right through to high school teachers who make history fascinating with tales of derring-do, or bring science to life with the stories of inventors in centuries past.
Has Analysis Taken Over?
So why, when we reach adulthood, and learning from our peers becomes an essential aspect of personal growth and career advancement, do we let stories take a backseat as a mechanism for teaching and learning?
On one hand, it’s simple: as adults, we are now expected to be able to retain important information without the sugar-coating of an interesting storyline. We place more value on empirical evidence, reliable statistics, and proven data, and less on anecdotal proof and ‘one size fits all’ moralizing. We scorn the latter as not scientific enough
And yet, we herald as modern heroes, those people who bring us both. Who front with the story, but who we know have done the work to back it up.
When Storyteller Becomes Hero
Despite the assumed focus on practical skills and the accumulation of information, what the most influential people in business and the media (and of course politics!) know, is that what sticks is a simple (or not-so-simple) story.
This is how we learn, this is how we are entertained, and this is how we are inspired to change. As nonfiction authors, we should aim to provide at least one of those for our readers.
Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple Computer, is remembered by a colleague at NeXT (a subsidiary of Pixar) as saying,
The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller… The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.
Jobs was the epitome of the storyteller in every aspect of his life. He created stories for the next generation at Pixar; he is remembered for powerful speeches, including that famous commencement address at Stanford, where he moved many of us to tears; and, of course, we saw his as the human face of Apple products — the technology for a new generation, the must-have lifestyle accessory.
Jobs was a storyteller through and through, both in the words he used and in the staging of his impressive marketing presentations.
Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most influential authors of the last two decades and, again, his is a success that relies on narrative storytelling.
Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, author and speaker who has worked for the New York Times since the mid-90s, and has seen five of his books on The Times’ bestseller list.
His sweet spot is to make extensive use of academic work and to mix it with intricate storylines to present us with unexpected and fascinating implications. He makes us look at something differently by weaving the out-of-reach research study into popular nonfiction, using his well-honed journalistic skills.
This format worked so well that Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point (2002), which explored issues such as the sudden drop of crime in New York City, through an epidemiological lens, was named one of the best books of the decade by Amazon, The A.V. Club, The Guardian, and The Times.
His ability to take complex ideas from sociology, criminology and psychology, and humanise them, is effectively doing what academics have failed to do for centuries — make science and social science accessible for the average reader, and — most importantly — interesting.
This success of this style of journalistic reporting of dense data was solidified by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the University of Chicago economist and New York Times journalist, in 2005, when they published Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.
Slightly more sensational than Gladwell, they managed to capture the public’s attention and, by 2009, the book had sold four million copies and has now spawned follow up books, SuperFreakonomics, Think Like a Freak and When to Rob a Bank, a movie adaption, a column in the New York Times, and a popular website and a podcast.
As an economist I shudder slightly at what they have done to my subject, but as a reader, I am in thrall.
Why Do We Hunt Down the Storyteller?
Like Gladwell, authors Levitt and Dubner successfully brought complex ideas down from the ivory tower of academia, and delivered them to us in a context of history and humanity, and a good old addictive storyline.
But success is not the only thing these authors share — both Gladwell, and Levitt and Dubner, attract their fair share of critics. Whether it’s for oversimplifying science, a lack of critical thinking, or for cherry-picking the newsworthy end of statistics simply for the sake of a good story, the critics find a reason.
Could there be a fragment of professional jealousy, perhaps??
But as Oliver Burkeman, writing in The Guardian, points out, these authors aren’t published in academic journals, and shouldn’t be held to the same rigorous standards. They don’t write to expand the body of academic work, they write to bring scientific thought to the masses.
On Gladwell, Burkeman writes,
The point isn’t necessarily to accept his conclusions, but to be jolted – even if via the improbable medium of ketchup – into seeing the whole world afresh.
Your #1 Role as a Storyteller
Nonfiction storytelling conveys a message, or teaches something that sticks in the reader’s mind through the intricacies of the storyline.
Something that has a practical application, or invites a new way of thinking, purely due to the anecdotes and examples the writer attaches. You are not instructing here, you are also inspiring.
From writers and journalists like Gladwell and the Freaks, to scientists and Nobel Prize winners like Daniel Kahneman, CEOs such as Jobs, all the way down the line to the moral tales that parents tell their children — they all have one thing in common: they are interpreters.
They craft a compelling story that aims to convey meaning to the reader or listener, on a topic which, without the storyteller, would be out of the reach of most of us. They make knowledge accessible – and not only accessible, but enjoyable, memorable, exciting, and thought-provoking.
Yes, this fashion of writing can oversimplify things. Yes, complexities can be overlooked, and anecdotes can have too much importance attached to them. Yes, we cannot attach the label of absolute truth.
But, what the storyteller does is help us see something that we had been unable to see before, with a storyline we can follow, that tunes into those parts of our brain that respond at a visceral level, not just an intellectual one.
It’s a valuable craft for an author to learn.
You too could sweep your audience off their feet and perhaps, in the process, become the next Malcolm Gladwell.
Who are your favourite storytelling authors? And why? We’d love you to tell us on social media…