Are our brains wired to enjoy stories?

Presentation experts extol the power of telling stories in presentations. A recent Scientific American “The Secrets of Storytelling” explores why stories are so powerful. It looks at three theories from the fascinating field of evolutionary psychology.

Stories are simulations for real life

flight-simulator2Keith Oatley, is a professor of applied cognitive psychology and a novelist. So he’s got a special interest in the psychology of fiction. He describes stories as “simulations that run on minds”. He says that just as pilots-in-training spend time on flight simulators, stories may act as flight simulators for real life.

Well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker says storytelling may have evolved because it was a useful “thought experiment”. By running a scenario and visualising what happens we learnt what might happen in real life. This equipped us to deal better with real life. So people who were more receptive to stories had an evolutionary advantage over those who weren’t so receptive. (For more on this see Pinker’s article “Toward a Consilient Study of Literature”).

We create stories to better understand other people

circleIn stone-age times, our ability to get on with other people was crucial to our survival. As a result we have what psychologists call “Theory of Mind” – we’re constantly guessing what other people are thinking and feeling. Our tendency to attribute thoughts and feelings to other people, leads us to create stories. In a 1944 study  reported in the Scientific American article, psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of trianges and a circle. The people naturally described what was happening in the form of a story eg: “The circle is chasing the trianges”. We’re naturals at creating stories out of what we see and experience.

Storytelling helps us know what’s going on

gossipAnthropologists note that storytelling is universal across cultures and throughout history. They hypothesise that storytelling about other people helped our ancestors survive and thrive. Our survival was dependent on living with other people – storytelling about others would have helped us learn who we could trust and who we couldn’t. Frank T McAndrew in “Can Gossip  be Good?” says:

People who were fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not, and it is the genes of those individuals that have come down to us through the ages.

The phenomena of gossip magazines and celebrity culture are possibly the modern equivalent of ancient storytelling.

So the presentation experts have got good reason for recommending the use of stories in your presentation. Your audience is wired to listen to them.

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  1. So you’re saying we should read tabloids to become presenters, right? ;-)

    • Well, it doesn’t have to be tabloids. Reading any contemporary business/communication book will also show you how to use stories to illustrate a point. For example, Malcolm Gladwell and brothers Chip and Dan Heath are master storytellers.

    • Jennifer should have been the mother of those children. Brad is a fool; Angelina a husband robber–see how easy it is to create a story!

  2. Yes, Gladwell’s TED talk kept my attention rapt about… spaghetti sauce!

    I’ve heard so many good things about the Heath brothers that I’m going to have to do more than just read reviews of their books on Amazon.

    • Made to Stick is a must-read for anyone interested in communication. I’m reading Switch at the moment, and enjoying that too.


      • Olivia, I read Made to Stick.

        I’m presenting 3 tips from the book on Jan. 10.

        For my key message, I’m trying to explain the Curse of Knowledge in one succinct sentence. What do you think of this:

        “The Curse of Knowledge: The more you know about a topic, the harder it is for you to explain it in a simple way to someone who doesn’t have your knowledge.”

        Then I’ll say:

        “But these 3 tips can help us craft our messages in ways that people without our knowledge can understand them.”

        I’m trying to find a more compact way to express the core meaning of the Curse without losing any of its essence.

        Olivia, do you have any ideas or feedback? Thank you!

        • Hi Kevin

          The trick to crafting a succinct key message is to experiment with taking words/phrases away and seeing if it still makes sense. I came up with this:

          “The more you know about a topic, the harder it is for you to explain it to someone else.”


          • Olivia, you nailed it!

  3. Hi Olivia,

    On December 8 you convinced me to read Made to Stick. And on January 10 I made a speech about it.

    I shared 3 tips for making your ideas sticky:

    When I rehearsed the talk in front of a friend, she told me that she didn’t understand what I said about the Curse of Knowledge. I thought that was ironic: My own Curse of Knowledge — from having read the entire book — made me think that I was explaining it clearly in two sentences.

    But we decided that I didn’t have time in this speech to clearly explain it, so I had to omit it.

    If you get a chance, could you let me know what you think of my talk? The main feedback I got was that people wanted me to use more personal examples.

    Oh, and one Toastmaster said that she’s curious to see me use a more “free-flowing” speech structure. But since I’ve adopted your 3-point structure for making presentations, more people than ever are saying that it’s very easy and engaging to follow my speeches.

    And weeks later, people actually remember my core message.

    Thanks Olivia.


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