I recently spent two hours working with the board of directors from a nonprofit foundation on stories. Not storytelling, which conjures up images of long, masterfully spun tales, but incorporating stories into their board communications. The group had come from a full morning of powerpoint presentations, brainstorms, and all things annual meeting. The room was hot, the air thick, and the fan in the window pumped at its maximum capacity---we couldn't really feel it. I was also on deck right after lunch.
IN OTHER WORDS, MY HOPES FOR CAPTIVATING THE GROUP WERE WAVERING.
I started by turning over the floor to three women who had been impacted by the Foundation (it was deliberate, I swear. Not a ploy to get out of the spotlight).
Each speaker started with information---how a foundation consultant helped give life to a capital campaign, or how the leadership program turned them into better communicators. But a couple of minutes in, something changed. The guest speakers started telling stories.
One was about a man who loved to do art at the local training center for the developmentally disabled; he had to move his easel every time someone wanted to walk down the corridor. Suddenly, we could all see the need for a new building and a capital campaign.
Another woman gardened with a high school girl she mentors---she went from hating peas (having only eaten them out of a can) to growing them herself and loving them. But even more inspiring, her family saw her newfound love for gardening and built her a garden of her own. (That's a community garden to the left... there's something to the magic of a garden).
THE STORIES KEPT COMING, AND IN A FEW MINUTES, THE ENERGY IN THE BOARD ROOM TRANSFORMED.
People sat up straighter. They smiled. When I took the front of the room and began asking questions, they answered---not just willingly but enthusiastically. For two hours we talked about story and practiced telling stories, and not once did I have to coax them.
I wish I could say that it was my stellar facilitating skills, but I think the energy in that room grew out of something else: the stories themselves.
STORIES ACTUALLY ENGAGE OUR BRAIN MORE THAN INFORMATION EVER COULD.
Studies have shown that when we hear information, the part of our brain that processes language activates. But when we hear stories, the parts of our brain that would activate if we were experiencing that story in real life also light up.
Say you're hearing a story about really great food; the sensory cortex lights up. If there's motion in the story, the motion cortex activates. Writer Leo Widrich wrote a fine post about this over on Lifehacker, and it's definitely worth a read.
Because the take-home is key for any writer: connecting with readers is about more than words and well-written sentences. It's about telling a story. And we say that a story resonates with a reader, now we know that it really does.
Science tells us what it looks like on the inside, in our brains. But after teaching this workshop, I know what it looks like on the outside. I saw it as participants stood up and told stories themselves. As soon as they slipped into story, their shoulders relaxed, their faces became animated, and everyone began to listen.