The Power of the Story.
This is a true story. There was a man driving home along a country road. On a particularly narrow and winding stretch with blind bends, he suddenly saw a car heading towards him. Being too far on the wrong side of the road the man swerved to avoid the oncoming car. Unfortunately, this diversionary action caused his car to hit a tree. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt even though his vehicle was a mangled wreck. Totally shaken, yet thoroughly relieved, he started to walk towards the driver of the other car, who had stopped immediately and was rushing over to help.
‘I thought I was a dead man,’ said the driver, clearly affected by his narrow miss. ‘I’m so lucky to be alive!’
At which point the damaged tree toppled over and fell on the man, killing him instantly.
Even with such a short and deliberately simplified story (it really is true, by the way) it is impossible not to get drawn into it, even if that’s at a superficial level. For such a short story this tale has many of the elements that pull people in: for a start, it has a beginning, a middle and an end; it’s a lonely country setting; it has a main character; there’s sudden drama, then tragedy, then irony, and – looking at it another way – a touch of black humour.
I can also guarantee you pictured most, if not the entire, scene in your head: the lonely road, the sudden swerve, the almighty crash, and then imagined the creak and snapping of the wood as the tree slowly fell down, finally that crushing blow with the man disappearing under the tangled canopy of fallen boughs. What’s more, you’ve just relived the entire thing again with me repeating it, this time with even fewer words. It’s impossible not to. It’s as if humans are wired so they’re hyper receptive to stories.
By wanting to become a writer you’re going to be engaged in a most powerful, though often underestimated force – a force capable of manipulating (if only in a temporary way, though often the effects can be long-term indeed) a person’s mind, closing them off to the real world, and even controlling their emotions, making them happy or making them sad, or generating fear and laughter, and all through the use of words.
There’s nothing new about stories. They’ve been with us for thousands of years. Before the advent of the written word (in whatever shape or form that would eventually take), it was oral, humans developing the ability to imagine, and then to relate that imagining to others verbally, who in turn pictured what was being said and being drawn into this shared, visualised, world. But few people even ask why the story is so important to humans, why it has endured to this day in myriad forms, be it books, films, plays, newspapers and so on.
If you’ve got children, or, like two members of my family who are teachers, you’ll know that you only have to say ‘once upon a time…’ and the kids fall quiet, their little eyes widening, mouths open in rapt attention, frozen and ready for the story. Try it, you’ll be surprised if not amazed at how quickly they’re drawn in. Anything that can tame kids like that is a powerful thing!
What’s really interesting about stories are the perennial themes that are thousands of years old and yet are with us today. As the old adage goes, there’s nothing new under the sun – there aren’t even any new stories, just new ways of telling old ones. Good, bad, sex, violence, greed, power, duplicity, love, death – these themes are an integral part of many ancient stories and continue to excite modern audiences as much as they did, say, Vikings sitting around log fires. And there is a reason Shakespeare is still so beloved, not just because of the sheer beauty of the works, but because the characters’ flaws and desires, their aspirations and capability for good and bad, still resonate today. But I’ll save that for another blog!
The story as a powerful force, you say? Not really sure about that.
Trust me, it really is.
As part of my degree, I once went into a church to study the organisational culture there. I attended a morning service as part of this, effectively an outsider looking in, studying how everyone interacted and the various cultural norms that were in place (fascinating in its own right). But one thing which intrigued me was the vicar’s sermon – not that I can remember the details now so far down the line, and actually that’s not important. He started out by telling a story. Sure, I knew it was going to be a story that had some kind of moral at the end and a link to God and the Bible. That’s a given. But even as an impartial observer, I was drawn into the simple story. It was going somewhere and I didn’t know where. When the end came, the vicar cleverly tied it up to the said moral and inevitable link to Jesus’ teachings. Now the story wasn’t special, the link was, when I went back to college to re-examine my visit, not even a great link. But at the time I remember thinking it sounded far more profound than it actually was, and that the vicar himself was a very insightful and clever man. I even felt spiritually moved by it, and I’m not a spiritual man. And that made me wonder why. What exactly was going on?
It was when I studied the presentations of successful modern-day business gurus alongside Malinowski’s works on witchdoctors and shamans that it became clear. It provided a direct link between ancient traditions of storytelling and its relevance to the world of today, and how the power of the story still continues to exert its extraordinary and powerful hold over us.
Now you wouldn’t think a business guru, a vicar and a village shaman would have anything in common. But business gurus, when advocating and making presentations on the next ‘big thing’ which gets everyone in the business world excited, usually begin with a story, which is generally a metaphor for the trials, tribulations and pitfalls of the current setup or issue you’re facing in your business. You’re intrigued, because, firstly, it’s a story, and we’re automatically wired to listen to a story; secondly, they’re taking you on journey and you’re helpless and have to follow, because you need to know where it’s going, where it will end. Then they hit you with the answer to the riddle you’ve been trying to work out, and it just so happens when the speaker tells you the answer, you’re left amazed, because it seems so profound it has to be amazing. But the audience have been psychologically duped.
If you examine the details in the cold light of day there is generally nothing special about what the speaker has told you. But they have two advantages. One is the nature of the story itself; the other is the great advantage of knowing the answer to where the story is headed. No one else in the room knows this, remember. If they’d simply come out at the beginning and told you about their theories or plans without the elaborate dressing, its impact would be far reduced, and it wouldn’t be as amazing. The vicar did exactly the same with his sermon. What Malinowski discovered was that this is exactly the same technique used by the village shamans he studied. These village wise men wrapped what was the ordinary in extraordinary tales to which only they knew the answer and so any revelation would appear wondrous and mystical to the listeners. The ancient use of storytelling gives them all – the vicar, the guru and the shaman – a certain manipulative power over their audiences.
I unashamedly used this technique myself in the many presentations I gave during my career in the charity and public sector, beginning with a story which is a metaphor for the subject you’re trying to cover. People remembered those presentations I gave with stories in them better than those that didn’t have one. I’ve even had people come up to me many years after the event and say they liked the presentation, and then relate the story I told!
That’s the power of story. Use it carefully and use it wisely!