From neurons to narratives: How to improve your storytelling skills

Why stories are one of the most effective ways to transmit knowledge

5-minute read

In 1944 two psychologists studying interpersonal perception, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, created a film starring two triangles, a circle, and a square. In the now-classic experiment, they asked subjects to describe what they saw. 


With the exception of one person, every participant imbued the shapes with emotions, intention, and motivations. In short, they told a story. Here is a sample of one participant’s description:

A man has planned to meet a girl and the girl comes along with another man. The first man tells the second to go; the second tells the first, and he shakes his head. Then the two men have a fight, and the girl starts to go into the room to get out of the way and hesitates and finally goes in. She apparently does not want to be with the first man. (Heider & Simmel, 1944) 

Heider and Simmel’s study points to an important fact of human existence: we use stories to organize and make sense of reality. 

At LifeLabs Learning, we’re fascinated by the use and power of narratives. “I have a story to tell you,” is a sure-fire way to grab people’s attention and imagination. Show us an effective communicator, we’ll show you a good storyteller. 

Steve Jobs echoed these sentiments when he said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”   

But why?

But what is it about stories that connect? Why does effective storytelling produce emotional and cognitive resonance? To explore this further, I contacted one of the best storytellers I know, author Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale). In an email exchange, Atwood explained it like this:  

“Complex language is one of our oldest and arguably our most defining human technology. Stories come out of it: This happened, then this happened, then this happened.

You can teach by maxims: “Don’t swim with crocodiles” — which always sound a bit like nagging. Or you can tell the story of Thrdj, who paid no attention and went swimming with crocodiles. Suddenly the river turned red, and then Thrdj washed ashore minus his head. Thrdj without a head wins hands down, wouldn’t you say?

Short answer: we’re hard-wired for stories. Small children understand This-happens and then This before they can talk.”

Atwood’s notion that stories are one of the most basic and effective ways to transmit knowledge is supported by research. Studies  have demonstrated that, in contrast to expository texts, narrative texts are associated with increased recall, better comprehension, and faster reading time. Other studies have shown that narratives engage a greater portion of our brains than non-narratives and that, when listening to compelling stories, people’s brains actually synch-up.  

Moreover, additional research has revealed that a compelling story with an emotional trigger causes people to be more understanding, trusting, and open to ideas. Such stories tend to release chemicals such as cortisol (distress response associated with increased focus) and oxytocin (empathic response associated with increased bonding). After being exposed to an emotionally potent story, participants were much more likely to share money with strangers or contribute to a charity.

The storytelling framework: “And, But, & Therefore.”

How do we tap into the power of stories? There are countless books on writing stories, and the advice can be complex and overwhelming, but at its core the structure of narrative is simple. According to narrative scholar Randy Olson, the DNA of storytelling boils down to three ‘connector words’: And, But, and Therefore.

God created Adam and Eve AND placed them in the Garden of Eden to live peacefully, AND God told them they could eat from every tree except one. BUT one day a snake tempted them to eat from the forbidden tree. THEREFORE, God punished and exiled them from the Garden.      

A struggling artist and a socialite meet on a passenger liner AND fall in love. BUT the ship hits a giant iceberg and sinks. THEREFORE, the two lovers have to try to escape and survive.

Our foundation as a country was dedicated to liberty AND equality, BUT now we are engaged in civil war that threatens our very existence, THEREFORE it’s upon us to honor the fallen and continue to advance the cause of freedom.    

From the Bible, to Titanic, to the Gettysburg Address, the ABT framework is the backbone of effective narrative. In the framework, the word “And” helps set the context for the story; “But” bridges words that are in contradiction -- the pattern interrupt that grabs the audience's attention; finally, “therefore” connects words of consequence -- a problem that has been addressed. 

While you can replace or even omit ABT connector words (like Atwood did in her Thrdj story), the takeaway is to use the ABT framework whenever you are communicating in narrative form.  

How do you develop your story sense? 

The good news is that storytelling skills can be developed. The bad news? Well, as the old joke goes: the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice. 

Here are three things you can do to develop your story sense.  

  1. Schedule ABT breaks: Set aside 15 minutes a day to find stories and break them down into their most basic components (ABT structure). This could be done by looking at scientific papers, newspaper articles, speeches, presentations, case studies, commercials, songs, artwork, etc. 
  2. Conduct a story treasure hunt: What stories are you and your team communicating internally and externally? What are the foundational stories of your team/org? What stories are you communicating to clients? For a whole week, go on a treasure hunt and collect the different narratives that circulate within your org. Create a file where everyone in the org can add stories they collect. Notice what is compelling about each story and where it could be improved.     
  3. Ask for storytelling feedback:  One of the most effective tools for developing a skill is receiving on-going feedback. Collect specific data-driven feedback on your storytelling skills. Before your next 1-1, send this to your manager/team: “I’m looking to become a better storyteller. After my next presentation can you please let me know, from a narrative perspective, what is one thing I did well and one thing I could do 10% better?” 

Storytelling is our most ancient and effective tool to inform, instruct, and inspire. As historian Yuval Noah Harari notes, “Storytelling is our speciality. It's the basis for everything we do as a species.” But not everyone does it well. Therefore, tapping into the power of storytelling is one of the most consequential steps you can take to stand out as a leader.   

If you want to learn how to craft communication and become a more effective and inspiring leader our Leading Change course may be right for you!