the power of story

Stories are powerful ways of sharing knowledge

In 2006 while the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was fighting in Afghanistan, Professor Anne Irwin observed how soldiers decompressed and learned through storytelling.

When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups – Irwin calls them “nesting circles” – and recount the events of the day or the mission.

Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other.

The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.

“Joking is a big part of it, and teasing,” she said. “It is not abuse. If you have been teased harshly it lets you know that you are part of the group.”

—John Cotter, Canadian Press, July 03, 2006

Even though these soldiers had all been formally trained and had worked and fought together, there was still a need to make sense of their continuing experiences. Informal and social learning can be the glue that helps keep them together during tough times.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall tells us how stories make us human. While our memories get worse over time, our stories, as we remember them, become much clearer. “Memory isn’t an outright fiction; it is merely a fictionalization”, says Gottschall. This reinforces the need to capture stories as close to the event as possible, as the soldiers of the PPCLI did. Stories can then be powerful modes of sharing knowledge.

We know a lot about how to tell effective stories

Roger Schank has covered story telling and knowledge management in great detail. Here are some highlights from a 2010 DARPA presentation.

  • Comprehension means “mapping your stories onto my stories”. It’s difficult to communicate with someone who has different stories.
  • Stories: should be full of details but short
  • Lecture: people cannot think about what they are thinking and listen to the speaker at the same time
  • Stories, to be effective, must not be too abstract for the person listening. Listeners must be able to absorb the stories.
  • In good stories, we do not give answers. Time and place for telling stories are also important.

In Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory  Charlotte Linde discusses the importance of ‘occasions’ in sharing institutional memory. “Without the occasion, the story rarely or never gets told”. Linde concludes that, “A story not having a proper occasion on which it can or must be told exists in an archive if it exists at all. An institution not having a range of occasions for telling stories is not likely to be working its past very hard.”

Stories are powerful because we are hard-wired to believe them

“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” —Jonathan Gottschall

Stories can promote both positive or negative behaviours

“While Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed Americans about the United States’ dehumanization of African Americans and slavery, Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves. Not only did Rand make it ‘moral’ for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she ‘liberated’ millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.” —How Ayn Rand Helped Make the US Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

Given the power of stories, a critical literacy skill today is the ability to deconstruct them. Thinking critically about how a story affects us emotionally is important before hitting the Tweet or Post buttons that are now so handy on our ‘smart’ devices. We have to constantly confront the post-truth machines. The medium is the message, and the medium of story is able to route around our rational brain and go straight to our most primitive feelings. We need to become story skeptics so all those emerging master storytellers on social media platforms do not lead us astray.

Today we need sensemakers even more than storytellers because stories can hijack our minds. We are more open to receiving stories than we are to understanding facts and logical arguments. First we have to make sense, and only then can we find unifying stories to help guide us. Stories that fuel the constant doubt and outrage online only serve to distract us. Whose story wins will depend on how smart we are. Let’s make sense BEFORE we make up stories to tell others.

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Comprehension means “mapping your stories onto my stories”



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