The Storytelling Animal: 4 questions for Jonathan Gottschall
Have you heard the one about . . . ?
Chances are, by the time you’ve reached this blog post, you’ve already heard dozens of stories in your day. Before you go to sleep, you’ll encounter dozens more. And you might desire some of these stories so deeply that you’ll pay for them.
As a species, we’re addicted to stories. But why? A terrific new book explains our strange narrative compulsion. It’s called The Storytelling Animal. (Buy it at Amazon, BN.com, or IndieBound.) And it’s a page-turner itself. In fewer than 300 pages, Jonathan Gottschall traces the cultural and scientific connections between story and the human brain, touching on nearly every facet of society long the way. (You can get a sneak preview in his excellent 80-second trailer.)
My interest in the power of story goes back a long way, so of course I had a few questions for Jonathan about what he’s learned on the subject:
You make a very convincing case about our species-wide addiction to stories. And yet so much of the time we spend immersed in story, whether reading novels, watching movies and TV, playing video games, or daydreaming, is characterized as “escapism” or “wasting valuable time.” Can you explain this paradox?
We love stories. We are enormously fascinated by the fake struggles of fake people. But the love is mixed with a little Puritanism: If it feels so good, it can’t be entirely good for us. So, for centuries we’ve worried not only that stories waste our time but, worse, that they promote laziness and moral corruption. I think this worry is misplaced. My book argues that stories—from conventional fiction to daydreams—are an essential and wholesome nutrient for the human imagination. Stories help us rehearse for the big dilemmas of life, bring order to the chaos of experience, and help unite communities around common values. We shouldn’t feel guilty about our time in storyland.
As you say in your book, storytelling permeates the business world — a sales pitch is a very short story, a presentation is a longer one, and of course we tell motivating stories to each other all the time in the workplace. Do you think this has always been so? Have business and commerce always been so storyfied? Is it changing?
There are two basic models of human nature in the business world. The Homo sapiens model assumes that it’s human sapience—wisdom, intelligence—that really sets our species apart. Based on this model, the best way to achieve business goals is to crunch numbers, lay out facts, and wait for rational actors to flock to your point of view. This is the traditional model. But a new model of human nature is emerging to complement—not replace—the traditional model. This is what I call the Homo fictus (fiction man) model of human nature. This model acknowledges that humans are creatures of emotion as much as logic, and that facts and arguments move us most when they are embedded in good stories. The world’s priests, politicians, and teachers have always known this by instinct, and so have the world’s marketers. What’s different now is a move to take storytelling beyond marketing and into all sectors of the business world that involve communication and persuasion. Storytelling is increasingly seen as an essential business skill.
That makes sense. In fact, you refer to commercials as “half-minute short stories,” and offer the Jack Link’s Beef Jerky ads as an example: “[They] say nothing about the product, by the way. They just tell stories about beef-jerky-loving guys who foolishly harass an innocent Sasquatch and earn a violent comeuppance.” Nothing about the product? How does that work?
Imagine you are a beef jerky marketer trying to take your relatively obscure brand to the top. What can you say about your product to set it apart from other brands of dried, salted beef? You could claim that your jerky is very tasty or healthy, but that will excite no one. So Jack Link’s just decided to tell the coolest and funniest stories they could, with the jerky appearing in the stories only as product placement—in exactly the same way that a Coke can might show up in a sitcom. This attempt to create a positive emotional connection with consumers worked big time. People liked the commercials so much that they went out of their way to watch them many millions of times on YouTube and to pass them around on their social networks. As a result, Jack Link’s is now a brand that most of know and think about positively.
What is one thing readers of this blog could do — today — to put what you’ve learned about the power of stories into action in their lives?
I’d like readers to take a moment (go ahead, do it right now) to marvel with me about the role of story in human life—from dreams, to reality shows, to urban legends, to religion, to pop songs, to the life stories that define our personal identities. For humans, story is like gravity—it’s this powerful and all-encompassing force that we hardly even notice because we are so used to it. But gravity is influencing us all the time, and story is too. Most of us think that our time in the provinces of storyland doesn’t shape or change us. But research shows that story shapes humanity at the historical, cultural, and personal levels. Story isn’t a frill in human life—something we do just for kicks. Story is a vastly powerful tool. By educating ourselves about story, we can use to learn that power in our own lives.
Good interview. Makes me want to read the book. Totally agree that storytelling and story-hearing are very important. Good stories fascinate the young, the old, and everyone in between.
Great article and great book. Our company SciFutures is using Science Fiction stories for strategic planning and to help companies embrace and create the future. http://www.scifutures.com.
The use of stories in commercials really is fascinating when you think about it. It’s very interesting to think about some commercials as very short stories with product placement as Jonathan mentioned. The Coca Cola commercials with polar bears is another good example of this.
Great insight into the human need to tell/share/create stories! Otherwise you’ve got nothing to share in the locker room!
I have to say I am intrigued. I will pick up a copy to read. I am curious to compare this to The Art of Storytelling.
I wonder if there is a distinction about the appropriateness, setting and purpose of storytelling in the workplace. That is, as Katie referenced “locker room” talk, becomes the reference base for serious issues that are cast by the teller as just an embelished story. This is already seen in the political arena with explaining away controversial comments with analagies and metaphores.
I am also curious if ethics and values are incorporated in the book relative to appropriateness, setting and purpsoe of the storytelling.
Hi! Thanks for yet another useful and fascinating tidbit Dan! It’s so true about storytelling — as a person needing to do my own marketing these days for a new business I am learning to appreciate its power. I love the reference to humanity as homo fictus. Reminds me of a story 🙂 — one of my profs in grad school (in intercultural communication) said a better name for our species would be homo narrans, since what really sets us apart as a species is our propensity to tell stories, and our need to do so.
Yes, storytelling is important in so many ways! For me, it’s connected with creativity and for others it’s better than therapy.
For the past several years, Baltimore has had a Stoop Storytelling series. Seven people (and three picked from the audience) tell their personal stories on a theme. Both my husband and I have been on stage telling our stories.
I just finished reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron – (Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Wired-Story-Writers-Science-Sentence/dp/1607742454/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top My Review: http://www.tomcatalini.com/wired-for-story-by-lisa-cron/) which also ties brain science to story. Great stuff. Now I look forward to reading The Storytelling Animal – thanks for pointing it out.
In late here….but it’s worth considering the importance of story for the teller too. Telling one’s story, or a story, to be heard and understood.
I am also a big believer in the power of story telling. In my book Active Interviewing; Branding, Selling and Presenting Yourself to Win Your Next Job, I include an entire section about how to tell powerful stories in job interviews. In fact, I tell my readers the best answer to an interview question is “Let me give you an example” which is an introduction to telling a story.
I’m quoting my favorite part of The science of Discworld II
“We are not Homo sapiens, Wise Man. We are the third chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from the ordinary chimpanzee Pan troglodytes and the bonobo chimpanzee Pan paniscus, is something far more subtle than our enormous brain, three times as large as theirs in proportion to body weight. It is what that brain makes possible. And the most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. ”
This book open my mind to why we tell stories. There is no Narrativium in our universe like there is on Discworld but we humans acts as if there where 🙂
I hope the author credits the NUMEROUS scholars who have worked all of this out in great details before him. Walter Fisher offered Homo Narrans decades ago and does work out the ethical implication. The key to understanding the power of narrative is that it is part of our ontology (essence) not simply a type of truth or genre. Once we grasped that, we can begin to “get it.”
Big fan of this interview. It’s interesting…our brains are actually biologically primed to receive stories that are delivered via certain structures. It’s why Three Acts work so well. Or Aristotle’s concepts of drama.
I recently did a blog post very closely related to this topic. http://scheincommunications.com/an-8-step-formula-for-successful-storytelling-in-business-from-community-creator-dan-harmon/
Interested to hear what you think!
The books comes out as an audiobook today on audible.com
I’m listening as I type
I have also bought On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd but haven’t had time to read it yet
Just after fininshing the audiobook I saw the the RSA had a new podcast about Changing the World with storytelling.
It’s with Adam Kahane who is coming out with his new book:
Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future
I have now finished telling a bit about Storytelling
As you read this your brain is telling a story for you. Namely your story about you. If your brain is a healthy one you are the protagonist in this story. Your own personal hero. What if you can help your hero on the way? Let’s find out how you can help your hero along and use storytelling power to change the world…
Now I have written even more about why Storytelling is the only way we our conscious brain perceives the world 🙂 #21 Engage in Storytelling
“If you want to burrow a message into a human mind. Work it into a story” -— Jonathan Gottschall