Why Story Matters Noah Wessel

The Power of Story

As human beings, we craves stories. Not only that, but each day we are writing a new page in the book that is our own story. The stories we consume from others can deeply influence the next page or even chapter in that book. That is because story is such an immersive and engaging form of communication that we interact with many times daily. Whether or not you are a writer, filmmaker, motivational speaker or in any other typical storytelling profession does not matter. That episode of The Walking Dead you just finished and that long phone call you had with your best friend about your day both were influential interactions with story that shape who you are and how you think. We all share stories, and we all have the ability to connect the abstract in a relevant way for other people and spark a great response from them. That is the power of story: When told effectively, it resonates with the listener, changes their perspective, and invokes a response. In other words, stories can be transformative and spark a greater story in the lives of those listening.

That is the power of story: When told effectively, it resonates with the listener, changes their perspective, and invokes a response. In other words, stories can be transformative and spark a greater story in the lives of those listening.

Story Structure

It is important for us to take this idea of story’s power and apply it to the large amounts of media that we consume on a daily basis. We know there are pros and cons to such consumption, but what role does story play in that? To get close to that answer, let’s look at what we know about successful story telling in movies, tv shows, and even brands. There is a certain structure to these stories, and there is a reason we connect and respond to them when we experience it, whether through viewing, reading or listening. Marketing experts such as Donald Miller with Story Brand have picked up on this model in all the successful films and have seen how powerfully it can be applied to a company as they try to position the customer (you) as the hero. In short, a story can be broken down into seven parts:

  1. There is a Hero who wants something

2. Hero has an external, internal and philosophical problem in the way.

3. The Hero meets a guide (who usually has both empathy and authority)

4. The Guide has a plan to offer

5. The plan calls the Hero to action

6. That either results in failure

7. Or it results in success

Donald miller has unfolded how this framework applies to all the successful movies that we love and how highly effective businesses use it to drive their sales. The specifics of the story framework isn’t as important as knowing that one exists that effectively causes us to connect with and respond to whatever story is being told to us. When we are aware of this, we can become a lot more selective of what influence is being imparted on us and better decide whether or not it is worth allowing. We have to remember that the 5,000 or so ads we see daily are all trying to sell us a story worth buying.

Science (The Brain & Oxytocin)

A fairly recent study from Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University had some relevant findings on storytelling. We shouldn’t necessarily take this discovery as air tight science and logic, but it could certainly be worth considering. Mr. Zak set out to expand on recent scientific work to show how stories can alter our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. A neurochemical know as oxytocin is discussed as a brain signal that tells us “it’s safe to approach others.” Oxytocin does this by enhancing our sense of empathy, which improves our understanding of how people will likely react in a certain situation. Mr. Zak’s team proceeded to test blood levels before and after narratives shot on video to check oxytocin levels, and sure enough, they claim to have found that "character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis.” They even believe to have discovered that the amount of oxytocin released was a good predictor of how likely or to what extent people would be willing to help others associated with that narrative. if accurate, this is a huge discovery for marketing and shows a reason we may respond with our wallets to some of the media we consume.

if we look a little closer into Mr Zak’s study (which is animated and detailed in the YouTube Link above), there are some bold scientific claims about our brains, but there are also claims about stories as a whole that make sense regardless of neurology. After discovering that Oxytocin release is connected with care, connection, and empathy, and that Cortisol release is connected with distress and increased focus, they gave participants an opportunity to donate money to help sick children like the one dying in the video. Those who produced both Cortisol and Oxytocin from watching the video were supposedly much more likely to donate generously. And, after taking the testing a step further, they were apparently able to predict before the video was shown with 80% accuracy who would give. If true, those are significant discoveries with certain implications on how stories in media responsively affect us. However, with all science aside, the real diamond in the rough is the claim Mr. Zak made about stories that I believe is true and so relevant in each of our lives:

“Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds. Stories make us feel connected to others around us."

This is a reminder that story telling is not transactional, it is transformative and relational. Connections are made in our minds and with the people around us through story telling that might not happen any other way. The connections from other people's stories spark us to tell our own stories in new ways.

The Positive Implications

Now that we have discussed the power of story and how it is consistently structured in the media we consume, it is important to dive deeper into the positive implications it has for each of us. I would like to look at this from a receptive point of view when we operate as the viewer/listener/reader, as well as when we operate as the story teller ourselves. This is important, because I am by no means advocating that we have to be super leery of stories or that they are an abusive tool used by the rich to control our minds and actions. We simply have to filter what stories we allow the media to speak into us. Again, stories are an important and effective form of communication that can help change lives, inspire others, and make connections that would otherwise be impossible.

Stories are incredible gifts that are floating all around us. There could be a story in a book, song, or film that you experience tomorrow that changes your whole life in the best way possible. Each of us has the potential to let in so many different types of stories in so many different forms and genres. Because we receive stories a lot more than we tell them, we can easily grow numb to the power of them and even fail to notice how much influence they have on our lives. When you become conscious of the potential of stories all round you and in yourself, you can begin to experience life in a fuller way.

Our individual experiences are so limited to our physical location, our decision making, and our circumstances. There is such a vast world of beauty and miracles out there that create breathtaking events both good and bad. It’s impossible to fathom what everyone else is going through and what stories they have to tell. The new coworker beside you may have a story about her life that completely shakes the way you see your own purpose. Her story of tragedy could spark your story of perseverance and triumph. Ultimately, from the receptive point of view, I believe stories have the power to positively transform you by expanding your understanding and experiences of life in a way that creates change. All of this is made possible through the connection that was made through the story. When we consume movies and TV shows, books, and songs, we should try to remember this and think about what connections, impulses, and thoughts we are receiving.

As story tellers, which I believe we all are to different degrees, we can put ourselves in the drivers seat and transport someone into a new perspective, experience, and journey. Whether it is a fictitious story we create or one that truly happened to us, there is immense potential to use our imaginations and experiences to impact lives. You simply do not have to be a filmmaker or author to tell a good story or share your journey in life. Your story matters as much as your favorite movie or book, it just might reach a smaller audience or connect in a different way.

We can’t let the high level productions and visual spectacles of mass media intimidate us from telling the stories inside of us. Don’t simply find sparks in other stories, be the spark for other people.

The Negative Implications

When flipping sides and looking at the negative impacts of story, I think you have to look at mass media and more specifically the evolution of TV and Film that we can watch in large quantities on demand at home and on the go. Much of the millennial generation and all of the upcoming generation are what is known as digital natives. Digital natives are those who are brought up their whole lives during the age of digital technology and it becomes very easy and familiar for them. That is why you see toddlers able to find their favorite videos on YouTube easier than their 60 year old grandpa. It can be disturbing at times how much media young children and adults are consuming on a daily basis now. The concerning part is the increase in maturity of narratives filmed for television, social sites and the big screen.

Simply put, from a children’s perspective, parental blocks can only go so far. You may be watching your new episode of The Walking Dead and your child walks in to see a skull smashed to a pulp or a new Netflix Original and they see nudity for the first time. Not only is some of the new standard of popular narratives often toxic for us as adults, but it can instill an unhealthy norm in the fresh minds of the young and curious. We simply have to be careful and aware of what kind of stories we are indulging in, even in novels we may adore. If the momentary pleasure of watching, listening, or reading something scandalous or provocative is the only value the story is adding to our lives, I just want to challenge whether that is truly worth our time. This isn’t to say the only good stories are non fictional narratives that provide us with wisdom and challenge us to become more in life. This is simply an honest step back to look at the narratives on our devices and in our hands and ask what the effects of them are truly becoming. This is important to consider for ourselves and especially for our children, because let’s be honest: Children now are more likely to chase after what is on their screens than what common sense or their parents say.

I’m a firm believer in the idea of garbage in = garbage out. What you are allowing into your mind and soul will definitely affect what stirs inside of you and ultimately comes out of you. If we are mindlessly clicking on the ad stories being marketed to us by businesses and binge watching stories that use sex, drugs and violence to entertain, I just wonder how much of that contributes to the ugly thoughts and pursuits we may be chasing that don’t bring lasting value to our lives. Again, stories have the transformative power to change our perspective and invoke actions in our lives, which makes it all the more important to make some healthy decisions on what exactly we allow to influence us.

How much of what you believe on crucial topics stems from what you’ve seen in mass media? If you don’t think for yourself, others gladly will, and media is a powerful tool to do so.

How we can leverage story

I’d now like to point us back to the potential of stories inside of each one of us. You may be in a season right now that feels dry, uneventful, or maybe even discouraging, but that is often where the best stories begin. No great story that inspires and impacts others is a story of constant success. Trials and tribulation set us up for incredible hurdles that leave us stronger and wiser than before. If you will choose to leverage those lessons as you advance through life and turn them into a story you share with others, you can be the spark that keeps someone else from giving up. Share your story in whatever form or medium you feel gifted in or passionate about and watch something bigger than yourself grow. The easy thing would be to convince yourself you aren’t creative enough or that you don’t have any stories worth telling, but there are always people who are struggling through that same battle or who love that same aspect of life as you. Connect with their experiences and stop limiting your story to yourself. Unleash what is inside you, there is potential to impact millions with it.

My hope is simply that after reading this analysis on stories, you would not settle for just receiving stories like normal. My hope is that you would recognize that the grand story of your life is comprised of many chapters worth sharing with the world.

Effective communication doesn't have to be intellectual discussions or corporate instructions. Although these forms are important, they often fail to connect personally like stories always have. From social media posts, to creative projects, to large presentations, it is all about storytelling.

In a world cluttered with noise, you have the opportunity to connect the abstract with people's experiences and impress upon them a powerful moment of reflection and hopefully meaningful change; change that may ripple across generations and last longer than your very own life.

This, I believe, is why story matters.


  • * https://ssir.org/articles/entry/why_story_matters
  • * https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling
  • * http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain
  • Media Analysis Techniques, 4th Edition
Created By
Noah Wessel

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