What’s so special about storytelling for social change?

By Simon Hodges 21 January 2014 – Originally published by the Transformation section of OpenDemocracy at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/simon-hodges/what%E2%80%99s-so-special-about-storytelling-for-social-change

A new world requires new stories, but people will only listen to them when they themselves are included in the storyline. This requires a ‘gear-shift’ in conversations about radical action.

While working in the belly of corporate communications some years ago, I stumbled across a storytelling night at Amsterdam’s Mezrab cultural centre. Nude model drawing classes and the Mahabharata in Dutch were also on the menu, but it was the storytelling that caught my eye, hosted on an open stage by an Iranian storyteller by the name of Sahand Sahbedivani.

Even through the candlelight and the smoke, the rapt attention on the faces of the audience made it clear that they loved the stories of human drama they were hearing, which was the opposite of my experience in my work. Despite the fact that I was working extremely hard to get the company’s stories more attention, they rarely ignited anything like this response in the public’s imagination. The difference between a profit-making organisation and an alternative arts event was obvious but intriguing. Why did storytelling at Mezrab succeed while corporate communications generally fell flat? The answers are relevant to anyone who has a story to tell, and nowhere is that more important than in the field of social change.

Today, storytelling is wildly popular. It’s seen as the key to succeeding in business, strengthening organizational culture, and drumming up support for advocacy and campaigns. But why is that? The first reason is obvious: climate change, inequality, violence and other challenges can’t be solved by doing more of the same. We need new narratives that connect with peoples’ deepest motivations and promote more radical action. Stories engage people at every level – not just in their minds but in their emotions, values and imaginations, which are the drivers of real change.  So if we want to transform society, we must learn to tell – and listen to – a new set of stories about the world we want to create.

So far so good, but what actually makes for a good story in this sense? That’s where my visits to Mezrab were so instructive. For one thing, the storytellers that got the most attention were not necessarily the funniest or wittiest. Instead, they were the ones that were most prepared to put their skin in the game, to state something that was uncomfortably close to how they saw the world. This radical subjectivity – perhaps the basis of all great art – is a crucial lesson for anyone who wants to communicate a complex topic. When we allow our own insights to organise the telling of a story, we give a more compelling account of events. Why? Because our deepest values are closest to what we share with others.

Business is only now learning that telling a good story requires authenticity, as if bewildered by the discovery of truth. Storytelling in social movements is more advanced. In fact for those who work for social justice, the problem has not been making up good stories, but getting people to listen to the ones they have already. This can be especially hard when movements are very broad, and when the issues they deal with are so large in scope. But my storytelling sessions taught me another lesson that’s useful in this context: even when the issues are large and complex, we feel compelled to listen when we ourselves are included in the storyline.

The danger of much current rhetoric is that justified frustration at injustice comes across in torrents of abuse. The parlous state of the economy, for example, is not just the fault of the bankers and politicians who have overspent, it’s also something that involves all of us on a daily basis in our roles as consumers and producers, employers and employees, shareholders and borrowers. When anyone is marginalized or demonized in this context, they are less likely to be part of the solution, even if they have the power to make change.

The Mezrab storytellers were successful because they and their audience felt united with each other at some level, even if they might disagree on the surface. In myth, drastic opposites are often reconciled through elaborate plots and casts of characters. We can do the same in our own stories by not alienating the people we need to talk to or persuade. Michael Margolis, a San Francisco-based ‘story architect,’ makes this point elegantly by asking that our stories of social change become love stories. His argument is that undermining belief systems – a necessary step in social change – requires an emphasis on shared values and commonality. These shared values can then be used to show when, why and how some people aren’t living up to them in practice.

Stressing unity between divergent interests has often been the basis of effective change – look no further than the genesis of the European Union after World War Two. A more local example came in the wake of the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby by two self-proclaimed Muslims in Woolwich, southeast London, in 2013. This event outraged the far-right English Defence League (EDL) who organised a protest outside a mosque in York. Knowing of this plan and anticipating violence, members of the mosque invited the protestors in for tea and biscuits. In the discussion that followed, both parties realised that they had a common interest in ending extremist violence. The protestors’ anger was successfully defused, and the day ended in an impromptu game of football.

The leader of the mosque, Mohamed El-Gomati, initiated a dialogue to identify elements of a shared culture among members of both the EDL and the Mosque. We can do the same with our own stories. Whenever there’s a situation in which we tempted to label one group as ‘the other’, telling a story that reveals shared values aids in the creation of new communities. The narrative ceases to be the property of one side’s rightness over another side’s error. Instead it becomes a story of co-creation and mutual responsibility.

Identifying common value is attractive, not just to those with whom we want to communicate directly, but also to other listeners who have to be part of the conversation. Focusing on commonality puts everyone in a stronger position to undermine belief systems and lay out new possibilities for social change. That, at least, is something I learned from corporate communications.

Where the business community excels is in its story of possibilities. After all, branding is simply an exercise in creating the idea that something is valuable, so that others will buy into it – in this case literally. Where these ideas about value are already present – as in social movements – much of the job is done, but not all. In addition to telling stories that inspire people’s imagination, movements can also activate their energies for action by including a greater sense of concrete possibilities in the stories they want to tell. And that requires something of a ‘gear-shift’ in conversations about the nature of radical action.

Myth, says Martin Shaw, is not just about awakening a past that is forgotten; it’s also about describing the possibilities of the present. Values – as the core of all good stories – can lay the foundations for social transformation by simultaneously undermining beliefs and retaining some continuity, so that people are not immobilized by the changes taking place around them. When stories are deeply grounded in values, they can communicate a vision and not merely a picture of the realities we face.

These visions – as enablers of action – are necessary to the path of social and political change. Those on the Left are often criticised for pointing out the problems rather than presenting some solutions. By identifying the values that underpin our activities and weaving them into a story of how the world might look, we will become more effective at opening hearts and minds to accommodate a positive future.


Exmoor Magazine Article – Winter Issue 2013

A short article introducing Story-Well, the benefits of stories and how they can improve well being.

A Story isn’t just for Christmas

Published by Exmoor Magazine

First published on HRZone on 1st August 2013, this fascinating article by Jan Hills discusses the neuroscience behind using storytelling to influence people.

Jan Hills's picture

Once upon a time ….. Stories and your brain

Stories are powerful tools for influencing. Once we understand how the brain responds to a story it is easy to see why.

A man found a cocoon for a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared, he sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through the little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared stuck.  The man decided to help the butterfly and with a pair of scissors he cut open the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But something was strange. The butterfly had a swollen body and shrivelled wings. The man watched the butterfly expecting it to take on its correct proportions. But nothing changed.

The butterfly stayed the same. It was never able to fly. In his kindness and haste the man did not realise that the butterfly’s struggle to get through the small opening of the cocoon is nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight.

When we coach and teach others it is helpful to recognise when people need to do things for themselves. Sometimes the struggle makes all the difference.

This is one of our favourite story’s we use when leading workshops. We use stories to pass on ideas and messages in a way which talks to the unconscious and well as the conscious mind. We know we have got it right when the story is repeated back to us by the next group of participants. Stories have many characteristic in common. They are also universal. Every culture uses stories to pass on knowledge and wisdom. It is not surprising therefore that neuroscience is beginning to find that our brain reacts to a story in a particular was, a way that is not seen when it just receives information from something like a powerpoint presentation.

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with words and bullet points the language processing areas of the brain, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are activated in order to decode the meaning. When we hear a story these areas are activated as well as all the areas that relate to the events in the story. For example if the story includes a description of the smell of a delicious pasta dish the sensory cortex is activated. If the story describes something unpleasant the disgust area is activated.

When we tell stories to others; stories that shape thinking and pass on wisdom the brains’ of the people hearing the story synchronise with the story tellers. Uri Hasson from Princeton found that similar brain regions like the insula and the frontal cortex were activated in listener and the story teller. The research suggests that storytelling creates a much deeper connection between people. The analysis also identified a subset of brain regions in which the responses in the listener’s brain preceded the responses in the speaker’s brain. These anticipatory responses suggest that the listeners are actively predicting the speaker’s upcoming words. This may compensate for problems with noisy or ambiguous input. Indeed, the more extensive the coupling between a speaker’s brain responses and a listener’s anticipatory brain responses, the research found, the better was the comprehension of the story.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang a neuroscientist and human development psychologist found that when we hear inspirational stories, more blood flows to our brain stem – the part of our brain that makes our heart beat, regulates our breathing and keeps us alive. This makes you literally feel inspiration on the very substrate of your own biological survival.

It is possible that the reason stories are so powerful is that we think in narrative all the time. The areas, known as the default system, called this because we default to thinking about ourselves or others within a few seconds of not doing a task, is activated when we think about ourselves and others. The default’s way of expressing thoughts is usually a narrative, at story, we are telling ourselves. So there is a consistency in how we ‘talk’ to ourselves and how we tell stories. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is how we think. We think in narratives whether it is about buying groceries, what is happening at work or thinking about our friends. We make up stories in our heads for every action and conversation. Jeremy Hsu found personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.

When we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That is why metaphors are used. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called the insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.

The graphic describes this:

Matt Lieberman has been studying what happens in the brain when people hear an idea that they will pass on to others and relay the idea in such a way the second person will also pass the idea on. Lieberman and his colleagues designed an experiment to explore what is going on in the brain when we first encounter an idea that is destined to spread successfully. You can download a video of Lieberman describing this work at the NeuroLeadership Summit .

What they wanted to see is what happens in the brain of the person who heard an idea that they will not only share with someone but that person will also share it. In HR terms, what happens in your brain when your strategic idea or solution to a problem convinces others to tell their teams or network? The expectation was that they would find areas of the brain activated that are associated with memory and deep encoding. That is areas that are used to hold onto critical information. In fact, those parts of the brain did not stand out in the study. They found strong activity in the brain’s default system, mentioned above; a network of brain regions central to thinking about other people’s goals, feelings, and interests.

Before this research it was assumed that when people are exposed to new information, a new story, they are assessing whether the information is sufficiently useful to them to pay close attention and try to remember. The experiments found we bring our social concerns when we take in new information. People are testing whether the information is of value to others who are important to them, and not just whether it is of direct personal value.

Lieberman calls this being an information DJ – people don’t just think about whether the information is useful to them but who else it will be useful to. They have others’ interests in mind when initially hearing the information and the more they feel it is important, the more they are able to pass the information on in a way that also resonates with others. Lieberman says this probably activates the rewards systems in the brain, increasing the person’s sense of reputation in the group. The better leaders are at understanding what will appeal to others, the more likely they are to pass on the right information which will appeal and spread.

In other research that supports Lieberman’s findings, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, analysed 86 fMRI studies and showed there is substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to understand others especially when we are trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

Since the regions activated are associated with the ability to simulate the minds of others, it appears that to be an effective influencer you need to spontaneously think about how to communicate information to others in a useful and interesting way when you first hear the information yourself. This is called the encoding stage.

The findings also add to an emerging literature on the link between the default system and social communication more generally. For instance,

Greg Stephens and colleagues recorded the brain activity from speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication and found that when the listener’s brain activity in the default network mirrored the speaker’s brain activity, there was greater communication and understanding between both of them.  The regions activated were the same key regions found in the Lieberman research including the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex.

As Lieberman and co say, the findings have a number of important implications for the spread of ideas, norms, values, and culture. It suggests that this depends more on the influencer’s social-cognitive abilities, use of emotions, and motivation, and less on IQ-type intelligence. None of the stages involved recruited brain regions associated with higher-level abstract reasoning and executive functioning.

So the next time you want to influence ensure you are putting yourself in the shoes of who you want to convince and to be especially successful or are struggling with getting people on board with your projects and ideas, tell them a story that has an ending which is what you had in mind. For tips on story writing go to our web site www.headheartbrain.com/capability. Stories are a powerful way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.

Jan Hills – Biography

Jan set up Head Heart + Brain to change the way leadership and capability development is designed and delivered.  With a qualification in NeuroLeadership, she’s the driving force behind their brain-savvy approach.

Before Head Heart + Brain Jan ran her own successful consulting business and was COO at an investment bank, so brings a huge amount of experience to the table in leadership and dealing with practical business issues. Jan also created our Success Profile methodology for talent strategy, created our MasterMind approach to leadership development and our BrainBox HR online development tool as well as leading our Success Profile research into HR Business Partners and HR Leaders. Identifying what makes them tick, and what the magic ingredients are which makes them so successful. Jan’s clients have included: Ermenegildo Zegna, Linklaters, ANZ, Atos, DHL, Deutsche Bank and TaylorWessing. Jan sits on the Managing Partners Forum HR Leaders Group Committee which provides education and networking for partnerships across the UK. Most of the major law firms are members. You can see Jan talking about her work in Leadership and a short video about Head Heart + Brain here