The Story of Stories (1)
The brain is plastic
- Every brain works differently
- We wire it to meet our specific needs
It’s commonly assumed that the brain and one of its main products, cognitive activity – the making of thoughts – are what they are and function in the same way for everybody. Nothing is further from the truth. Just like computers, when we’re born our organ is more or less blank of any data, and capable of being programmed (via sets of synaptic connections) in innumerable ways.
And that’s precisely what happens in relation to our “micro” programming: each human brain is distinct and displays its own identity, just like fingerprints. Our cognitive data sheet is the product of numerous influences: genetic inheritance, culture, education, beliefs…
But we need only consider the case of those high-functioning individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome – a milder form of autism – to understand that the brain can make connections that go against everything that normally happens. Without going into the clinical aspects of this “difference”, let’s just say that a person with Asperger may “knit” their brain in such a way as to be able to memorise a phenomenal amount of data (which an ordinary individual is incapable of doing): no doubt it’s for her or him a survival strategy which best fits his or her worldview. Similarly, learning a foreign language teaches us how different is the worldview that exists on the other side of a border, and how, like any other belief, it ends up guiding, defining, programming our grey matter and our behaviours this way or that way.
As a species, however, humans have chosen a programming tool, a language or a specific “reading” of their world: storytelling.
The Story of Stories (2)
Our civilisation chose its language: storytelling
- In order to survive, the human ‘animal’ had to organise
- Telling each other the same story helps walking in the same direction
In order to ensure its survival in a hostile environment, to step out of the food chain and jump to the top of it, humans have put a strategy in place: the group. In the wild, only the group could enable the advent of a gentler, more forgiving existence.
We had to experiment, learn and transmit best practice; get organised, set up systems; work out terminologies and an ever more precise language to convey ever more nuanced information. But above all, we needed individuals to respect the rules and commit to the group. And to achieve that, we had to tell stories, get them believed and passed on. The Flag, the Nation, the border. The Constitution, the Bible, contracts. My past, my present, the stories I tell myself. History books, the latest scientific theories etc.
We’re on the lookout for anything that will give meaning to getting up in the morning, that will help us understand our environment and manage it, and simply feel good. We need a purpose. And purpose implies movement and direction. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. A course in which we decide to engage. A story which resonates inside and in which we have a role.
Storytelling is a language that has shaped our brain. And today, it is the best language our brain has to grasp the world.
The Story of Stories (3)
Using stories in presentations: what exactly does that mean?
- Storytelling isn’t just about anecdotes
- The presentation, as a whole, is a narrative
How do you use stories in presentation, then? Insert a few personal anecdotes here and there? Pepper your speech with lively descriptions? Employ telling metaphors or comparable situations? Yes – but that’s not all.
The whole presentation needs to be designed as a story: a hook meant to pique the interest, an introduction that taps directly into the audience’s preoccupations, a main part that takes the listener on an emotional journey, to bring her or him from an unfavourable to a favourable frame of mind, a conclusion that brings clarity to the take-away, and above all an objective, that is the course of action the audience is meant to take afterwards. This objective is not explicitly stated in the presentation, but it is the invisible thread running through it.
Each element of this talk must be shaped like a cog in an overall narrative, like a component in a storyline that creates meaning for the listeners, reflecting their own objectives and providing the incentive to engage in the required action, for their own benefit.
A presentation is a meta-story that integrates smaller ones of different formats, e.g. anecdotes, examples, images, metaphors. And each small story must prompt a small psychological step that will lead, ultimately, to the great leap into action.
The Story of Stories: Bibliography
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: a brief history of humankind, London: Harvill Secker, 2014.
- Huston, Nancy. The Tale-Tellers: A Short Study of Humankind. Toronto: McArthur & Co, 2008.