[Strategy] The Power of Story

Stories lie at the core of the human condition.

Stories, myths, fables and legends serve a psychological need that human beings have for connection and understanding. The people in professions that understand this, from priests and pastors to marketers and con men, can weave stories so fabulous that they can sell a person anything, from a washing machine to the cannibalistic sacrifice of virgin flesh.

Psychologists and psychiatrists know the power of stories.

They spend years in the medical and mental health fields, carefully mapping the ways in which cognitive connections develop and then the ways in which those connections are externalized with the outside world. Therapy is just a refashioning of a story that you have told yourself for so long that it has become true for you.

When we talk about stories, we inevitably have to talk about fiction and fact, truth and lies. Content and Context serve an important function here, because the ways we determine what the truth is (both “for us” and “for the other”) are important. What may be truth for you in a story may be an out and out lie for me.

Mediators specialize in getting to the truth by first acknowledging that everybody tells a shaded truth: Not necessarily a lie, as in, a story told with the intent to deceive, but a truth that is bent and shaped through content and context to service a particular interest: theirs.

The third factor that influences all of this is power. Now, social justice practitioners and thought leaders talk a lot about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and who is using it to oppress or to privilege.

Power, however, is also based on content and context. This is a tough truth for true believers in social justice, and why the panacea of a socially just future will never be fully recognized.

There are too many competing stories.

When every story competes for primacy in the external realm of an open, capitalistic market, some stories win and some stories lose. The story of Coca-Cola is obviously a winner in the marketplace.

The story of all kinds of insurance—from life and health to car and home—is neither winning nor losing. The story of MySpace is definitely losing: As did the story of Pets.com, Borders and Woolworths.

When we think of the personal brands that we present online, from our social media presences to our tendency to spam and flame each other in the “below-the-fold” comments section of our favorite online articles, stories and storytelling become even more important.

Case in point:

I read an article here http://tinyurl.com/q98wp8c, which served to activate my own stories that I tell myself about writing, famous authors, the nature of public opinion, online journalism, Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, obscure Viennese writers, World War 1 intellectualism, racism, social justice, wealth inequalities and the ubiquity of online blowhards.

And that was in the first two minutes after I had finished reading the article.

A couple of hours later, I was talking to my lovely future bride and her son and relating the story of the article, further embellishing the story I was telling myself about the article that I had just read.

This is the power of a story and of storytelling. I start out reading someone else’s words and end up making my own meaning of them. Then, to make matters worse, I influence others in how they create their own stories and how they intersect with the external world, featuring myself, the article, the people with whom I interacted and, of course, the stories that they tell themselves.

When conflicts happen, the circle closes, reopens and closes again on the stories that we tell ourselves. Because while conflict is change and conflict is dynamic, it is disruptive, disjointing and personal. The stories of conflicts vary, but they typically begin with:

“They did thus and so to me. And I turned around and did thus and so to them, but they are at fault and they owe me an apology because they started it, I’m innocent and that’s the truth.”

And there it is. The two most important words in any story, whether it’s a marketing story to get you to buy a car or a religious story to get you to buy a belief, the most important thing in any story is the Truth.

Writers, bloggers, journalists, poets and others have long known the power of the truth in a story, which is why stories work so well. They appeal at a deep level to something in the human psyche that very few ever talk about: the desire to be entertained.

  • This desire is why fiction outsells nonfiction.
  • This desire is why “reality” TV is always scripted.
  • This desire is why, even in the midst of a terrible trauma or a horrible conflict, resolution is so hard to come by: Either one, or both, of the parties is being—at some elemental, cognitive level—entertained.

Dopamine is a neural chemical that is triggered in the midst of pleasure and pain. It lulls a person to sleep even as it creates bonding by also releasing that other neural chemical, oxytocin.

The desire to be entertained is intimately linked to the desire to be lulled and pleasured by connection. And the ultimate way to connect is through storytelling.

Forgiveness, reconciliation, anger management, deep breathing, mediation, mindfulness, are all hard and require work to maintain. They require the frontal cortex where creativity, art, poetry, music and all the other hard things live, to be activated and used.

Power enters into this in the area of telling the truth, versus telling a story. Power equals control and he (or she) who has the power (mostly power “over” another person) gets to make the rules.

Power used to be concentrated in the hands of the very few, however, as technological advancements have occurred; power has dissipated to even being in the hands of the very young and the very old. Social media, the Internet, blogs all are forms of communication that give everyone the same power and the same access, though outcomes will vary.

And thus we close the first part of the loop: Stories, fables, legends and myths serve a purpose. They allow us to categorize, compartmentalize and make sense of the world. Stories that we tell ourselves are the most important stories of all. This is why motivational speakers the world over talk endlessly about having a positive mindset; which allows us to tell ourselves stories that are positive and uplifting.

But, what do we do when the stories aren’t that great: When the trauma, dysfunction and conflicts lie at the core of our stories?

-Peace Be With You All-

Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: jsorrells@hsconsultingandtraining.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HSConsultingandTraining
Twitter: www.twitter.com/Sorrells79
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jesansorrells/

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