So the Story Goes: Content + Delivery = Meaning


I had a friend in college who had the innate ability to kill a good story.

He was my buddy, I loved him (still do), but when he started with, “So, here’s what happened …” I would cringe. I was never sure if the problem was with the story itself or just in the telling of it. But whatever it was, he almost always crashed and burned like a bad comic on a Tuesday Open Mic Night.

Storytelling is all the rage now. In business, education, science, and even the arts, people are talking about what a powerful tool storytelling is.

Scientific research, however, tells us that storytelling affects our brains. Here’s how:

  • Neural Coupling – Activates parts in the brain that allow the listener to turn the story into their own ideas and experiences
  • Mirroring – Listener’s brain activity begins to mirror that of the speaker and other listeners
  • Dopamine Release – Brain releases this chemical when it experiences an emotionally-charged event, making it easier to remember with greater accuracy
  • Cortex Activity – Stories stimulate parts of the brain that process facts as well as engaging motor functions and sensory perceptions

In business, storytelling is taking the form of content marketing. The Content Marketing Institute describes this as, A marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

Marketing experts are now having discussions as to how these stories (content) will be told through multi-faceted advertising and promotion strategies.

In developing education and training programs, designers are taking a story-driven approach to learning. On Shift’s eLearning Blog, Karla Gutierrez recommends people adopt the mindset of a novelist:

Imagine you want to tell the story of a hero who has overcome seemingly impossible challenges. You want your readers to be motivated by the hero’s actions. So do not think answers; instead, think about different personalities and their various attitudes and behaviors that move others to act … think about episodes … think about scenes.”

So, everyone gets that storytelling is important. What may be getting lost in the shuffle is the quality of the story itself and the delivery by the storyteller.

Back to my college buddy.

When he would begin to tell a story, it was like watching a train pull out of a station that was destined for a horrible, bloody, steel-twisting crash. I knew in advance that even if the story was a good one — he would kill it. And if it was a crumby one, well, that one would get destroyed, too.

I tried to be a good wingman. Often, instead of watching the carnage, I’d stand behind him and act out his story, doing my best Marcel Marceau impression. It was good for a few laughs and broke the tension. Though I may have inadvertently been buoying a crappy story from a terrible narrator, I was helping a friend.

What this all boils down to is that as our storytelling landscape continues to change, we must never stray too far from this basic truth — a great story, well told, will always be relevant and meaningful to its audience.

So the story goes…

Joseph F. Bastian, president of The Human Performance Network, is a regular contributor to and DBusiness Daily News.