What is a story?

What exactly is a story?

According to dictonary.com it is:

‘a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.’

Stories transcend time and space and they aren’t just confined to creative writing.

They are at the heart of music, TV, films, photography and so much more.

Like the above definition suggests, stories can be used to explain, to sell, to inform, to entertain or to inspire. Their capacity for instruction is, in a sense, limitless.

Stories are what makes us human.

As far as we know, there are no other species in the animal kingdom that tell and share stories. A cat meowing at another cat is a form of communication but it’s devoid of narrative (as far as we know!).

Most human interaction is about storytelling.

For example, if you ask someone at the end of their day “How was your day?” then they’re only too happy to tell you a story.  

You could argue that stories are what have made us the apex of the species. They allow us to create and believe in abstract concepts like money.

A paper note has no value in and of itself. We give it a value by creating a story around it. It requires us to collectively believe in this story for money to function as a form of exchange.

So perhaps the popular phrase “Money makes the world go around” should really be “Stories help the world go around”.

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Our Top 5 Books About Storytelling

Books are a nice and relaxing way to learn about new things and be entertained.

The best ones manage to do both at the same time.

It’s a skill and the best authors instinctively know how to keep us hooked from one page to the next. 

Fortunately, it’s one that can be developed. To that end, here are our 5 books we love about the art of storytelling:

1. The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo

“The best selling author and communications expert Carmine Gallo reveals the secrets to telling powerful stories using fifty lessons from visionary leaders.”

2. Into The Woods by John Yorke

“John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers’ Academy, takes us on a journey to the heart of storytelling, revealing that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative forms. From ancient myths to big-budget blockbusters, he gets to the root of the stories that are all around us, every day.”

3. Wired For Story by Lisa Kron

“Backed by recent breakthroughs in neuroscience as well as examples from novels, screenplays, and short stories, Wired for Story offers a revolutionary look at story as the brain experiences it. Each chapter zeroes in on an aspect of the brain, its corresponding revelation about story, and the way to apply it to your storytelling right now.”

4. The Story Factor by Annette Simmons 

“This book shares case studies of storytelling in action. They each show how stories can be used to persuade, motivate, and inspire in ways that cold facts and bullet points can’t. Simmons also shares the six stories you need to know how to tell and demonstrates how they can be applied.”

5. Made To Stick by Chip & Dan Heath

“Over ten years of study, Chip and Dan Heath have discovered how we latch on to information hooks. Packed full of case histories and incredible anecdotes this book offers superbly practical insights that you can apply to your own storytelling endeavours.” 

That’s it folks! Any other books you’d recommend on the art of storytelling? We’d love to hear your recommendations below. 

Happy reading. 

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Our Top 5 Podcasts About Storytelling

We love a good podcast.

Granted you have to root amongst the rubbish to find the gems but the quality of some out there will amaze you. 

Some of our favourites are the ones that tell stories well. It’s not so much about the specific content they cover but the universal human truths that they explore. 

Our five favourites (for now at least) are as follows:

1. The Moth by @TheMoth – Episode length approx. 10mins

“Moth storytellers stand alone, under a spotlight, with only a microphone and a roomful of strangers.” 

2. StartUp by @Gimletmedia – Episode length approx. 25mins

“A series about what it’s really like to start a business”

3. The Memory Palace by @thememorypalace – Episode length approx. 10mins

“Short, surprising stories of the past, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, often a little bit of both.”

4. Welcome to Night Vale by @NightValeRadio – Episode length approx. 25mins

“Twice-monthly community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, where every conspiracy theory is true. Turn on your radio and hide.”

5. Thinking Sideways by @ThinkinSideways – Episode length approx. 1 Hour

“Devin, Joe and Steve sit down every week to discuss unsolved mysteries of all kinds: weird noises, strange website and horrific suicides that look a lot like murders.”

Any others out there you think are worth sharing? Please let us know in the comments. 

Oh and happy listening! 

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Our Top 5 Talks About Storytelling

When learning any new skill it helps to seek the advice of experts.

They function as a convenient vehicle for accelerating your understanding of whatever it is you want to know more about.

Like storytelling for example.

The good news is the internet is an excellent place to track down wisdom from some of the world’s best. 

So what are you waiting for?

Find some time and a quiet space and enjoy these 5 fabulous talks:

1.  The Clues To A Great Story

Andrew Stanton has worked at the highly regarded animation company Pixar since 1990. There, he has been involved in writing, directing and producing some of the world’s most loved animated films including Toy Story, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. In his TED talk which has been viewed more than 3 million times he shares his secrets to making great stories. 

2. The Magical Science Of Storytelling

David JP Phillips’ talk is full of good stories and peppered with humorous moments. In it, he shares some of the key neuroscience behind storytelling. He explains that we actually ‘feel’ great stories because they promote the release of the endorphin dopamine and other hormones into our bloodstream. Spooky! 

3. Catch Me If You Can 

You may have seen the Hollywood movie of the same title. The story of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life is stranger than fiction. Ok so this one’s not specifically about storytelling as such but it is an example of a masterful storyteller at work. It’s incredible how the time seems to fly watching what is, in reality, quite a long talk. 

4.  The Mystery Box

J.J. Abrams created the popular TV show Lost as well as directing movies such as Cloverfield and the new Star Trek. In his TED talk he discusses the importance of curiosity when it comes to storytelling. Describing the influence of his grandfather on him as a young boy, he recalls how he was always fascinated with knowing how things work. 

5.  The Mystery Of Storytelling

Julian Friedmann is a publisher with 40 years of experience working with writers. He mentions some of the important lessons he’s learnt during that time of what makes for a good story. Friedman passionately believes the key to better storytelling is understanding that it is more about the audience than the writer. 

Any other talks out there worth sharing? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 

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Our Top 5 Blogs About Storytelling

Blogs can be an excellent source of learning.

It sometimes takes a bit of time to hunt down the good ones but when you do come across one you’ll be hitting the refresh button constantly in the hope of a fresh post.

We believe the following 5 blogs will teach you (either directly or indirectly) to be a better storyteller:

1. Dave Trott’s blog 

It may not come as a huge surprise to you to know that Dave is a legend of the UK advertising industry. After all, ad men need to be masterful storytellers to get their point across quickly and, at the same time, make it memorable. All his posts are engaging to read and learn from. 

2. Wait But Why? – Tim Urban

Tim Urban’s blog is a joy to read. His style and tone makes you want to keep on reading and this is important given the length of some of his posts! Humour is a wonderful tool in the storyteller’s arsenal and Tim has mastered it perfectly. Oh and Elon Musk counts it as one of his favourite blogs out there. Enjoy.

3. Robert McKee’s blog 

McKee is one of the giants of screenwriting and his blog is full of golden nuggets to help you sharpen your storytelling abilities. One to plunder gloriously.

4. Jonathan Gottschall’s blog

Gottschall is an American literary scholar specialising in literature and evolution. He also wrote a great book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human which probably qualifies him to offer us some great advice and insight into the craft. Lots of interesting lessons on storytelling here. 

5. Buzzfeed

Bear with us on this last choice. Despite any reservations you may have, this company has made an enormous success of grabbing people’s attention. This is paramount. If your story doesn’t make it through the attention filter it doesn’t matter what it’s about. Many tricks of the trade to be learnt from studying the way this site presents its content.

Any other good storytelling blogs you’ve come across lately? Please share them in the comments below. 

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Our Top 5 Documentaries About Storytelling

A decent search of the internet failed to uncover any documentaries specifically about the art of storytelling.

We spy an opportunity there…

Fortunately, there are a legion of excellent documentaries that tell their stories particularly well and therefore, in an indirect way, teach you about this wonderous art form.

So, without further ado, here are our top 5:

1. Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley

An extraordinary tale of the secrets and lies carried by one family. Sarah Polley is a master of suspense and keeps the viewer in the dark until the very end which makes this story so utterly engaging to watch. 

2. The Imposter by Bart Layton

An unnerving but well crafted film about a 23 year old Frenchman who pretends to be the 16 year old missing son of a Texan couple. It’s a brilliant example of the power of stories. Both the ones we are told and the ones we chose to believe. Unmissable.

3. Senna by Asif Kapadia

A marvellous piece of filmmaking about the talented Formula One driver Ayrton Senna who died aged just 34 at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. The director painstakingly weaves a cohesive and compelling story from archival footage, new footage and recordings of the fateful driver’s own voice acting as a kind of posthumous narrator. Kapadia makes your really care about Ayrton even if you have no interest in the sport at all.

4. Man On Wire by James Marsh

It’s hard to believe that this happened in real life. So breathtaking is the idea of walking on a tightrope between the Twin Towers with no safety harness that you have to see the archival footage with your own eyes to believe it. It’s an amazing testament to the ambition of man to overcome the seemingly impossible. 

5. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room by Alex Gibney

Another great demonstration of the power of storytelling. In this case, it’s a tale of how a bunch of smart, ruthless and ambitious men sold themselves and their investors a story that in hindsight was simply too good to be true. The depth of the lies within the stories they told at times beggars belief. How did they get away with it for so long?

Which documentaries would make your list? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you. 

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Breaking Through The Attention Filter

If it takes you more than quarter of a second to read all the words in this sentence then you are, scientifically speaking, a moron.

That made you stop and pause for a moment didn’t it?  

Ok, so it’s a) not true and b) it’s simply there to prove a point.

That is the fact that we are bombarded with so much information every day that in order for something to cut through it needs to grab our attention.

To do this, it needs to pass through the ‘filter’ from our subconscious to our conscious. This exists to protect the conscious brain (which has relatively slow processing speeds) from being overwhelmed.

As a storyteller this is of paramount importance. If you don’t make it past the gatekeeper then it really doesn’t matter what your story is about in the first place.

In her excellent book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron sums it up well when she writes, ‘…in order to distract us from the relentless demands of our immediate surroundings, a story has to grab our attention fast.’

So what kind of stuff makes it through the filter?

Anyone who works in the advertising industry is probably best placed to answer this question. After all, advertisers have to be masterful storytellers to get their point across in 30 seconds or less.  

The legendary UK advertising creative Dave Trott has a wonderfully simple way of explaining it with his anecdote about watching a series of TV ads.

He says to imagine the ads being represented by a line of ‘X’s with one ‘O’ in the middle. I.e. something like the below:

XXXXXOXXXXX

The ‘X’s mark the adverts which are all similar in their look, tone and message.

They become familiar to the brain and so it ‘tags’ them as not being worth your attention. They are not providing anything of interest; ergo they don’t pass through the filter.

The lone ‘O’ on the other hand is something novel and different. Your brain hasn’t seen something similar to it before so it stands out. Because the information might be important it is prioritised up the chain.

It makes it past the filter.

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The Evolution of Storytelling

Stories have been around as long as Homo Sapiens have walked the earth.

In fact, prior to written language, it was the only way information was passed down from generation to generation.

The earliest stories were told using cave paintings. They mainly focused on passing down hunting or foraging advice and even used fire light as an early form of animation. 

For many thousands of years, storytelling technology evolved at a slow pace; cavemen began to introduce simple sign language and then progressed to telling stories with their voices.

Then, in around 3000 B.C., it all changed when a clever lot known as the Sumerians invented writing.

This meant that stories could finally be written down. No longer were they reliant on the limitations of human memory. Nevertheless, the information remained privy to a select few because the method for recording words was extraordinarily time consuming and therefore not easy to reproduce. 

In around 800 B.C., Homer wrote the epics poems the Iliad and the Odyssey which are widely considered to be the two founding works of Western literature. 

Not too shabby a legacy!  

Another smart Greek chap called Aristotle wrote his famous treatise on the art of writing Poetics in around 335 B.C. This is the earliest recognised attempt to codify the art of storytelling.

Flash forward to the Middle Ages, and troubadours would use music to tell stories to the illiterate population. They would travel from region to region gathering the most interesting stories to share.  

In around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg’s invented the printing press which represented a watershed moment as it allowed for stories to be spread with greater ease. Storytelling suddenly became available to the masses.

In the 16th Century, Shakespeare’s plays allowed for large crowds of people, both literate and illiterate, to enjoy his stories as thrilling live performances. 

A couple of hundred years later, something called the Industrial Revolution led to the invention of new storytelling devices in the form of radio and film. Being able to see and hear stories in these mediums became an even faster and more successful way of spreading them that the written word.

The end of WW2 signalled the golden age of television. Now brands could tell their stories to people in their homes in the form of advertising. 

In the 1990s, the internet started to take off. Suddenly, anyone could tell their story, for the first time in history everyone had a voice through new mediums like blogs, YouTube, facebook, podcasts, and so on. With little to no cost it became possible for good story to travel the world in the click of a moment.

Today, there are more ways to tell stories than ever before. But it is important to remember that what makes for a good story is the same today as it ever was. 

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5 reasons to include humour when storytelling

We all like a good joke.  

They help us to relax and make us feel good.

And the neuroscience backs this up.

Laughter promotes the release of endorphins or ‘feel-good’ hormones in the brain. It has also been shown to reduce the volume of the two major stress hormones; cortisol and epinephrine.

This is why it is a powerful ally in storytelling. Here are 5 ways in which making your audience smile can have an impact: 

1. It allows you to approach sensitive or difficult subjects

Think of a risqué comedian. Their observations would be highly controversial if they weren’t wrapped in the softening context of a joke? Shows like Will & Grace have used humour as a vehicle to break existing societal taboos because of its disarming effect.

2. It keeps your audience interested

Real life is not 100% serious all of the time. A sprinkling of laughter helps to ground your story and make it more believable. You would soon tire of a book or a film that was serious the entire time.

3. It makes your story more memorable

Think of all the funny one liners you can recall from your favourite movies. Happiness is one of the six key emotions, all of which are key in the formation of memories. Put simply, the greater the emotional impact of your story, the more likely your story is to be remembered.

4. It makes your characters more realistic

When tragic things happen in life, humour offers a way to ease the tension. It is not uncommon for a humorous anecdote to be told in a funeral speech for this exact reason.

5. It helps give rhythm to your story

A well told joke helps to give shape and rhythm by acting as a form of punctuation. It can signal to the reader that they’re coming to the end of certain phase of a story or even the beginning of a new one.

There’s a tendency to assume humour isn’t appropriate for telling certain stories, but it’s actually a brilliant technique for making your point more memorable and encouraging trust in you as the storyteller. So the next time you’re telling a story add some humour and let us know how it goes.

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Your brain on stories

Ahhh…the feeling of getting lost in a gripping book or binge watching the latest TV box set.

Time just seems to dissolve away.

Why is this not the case when sitting through a PowerPoint presentation? Why is one activity so enjoyable and the other a mind numbing experience we’d rather avoid?

It’s all to do with the difference in the way our brain processes facts and figures versus stories.

Data only activates two areas of the brain: Wernicke’s area which deals with language comprehension and Broca’s area that deals with language processing.

Stories, on the other hand, have been shown to activate a greater number of regions.  

Indeed, fMRI scans show that when we read words like ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’, our primary olfactory cortex, the area of the brain responsible for smell, is activated.

Our brain reacts as if we were literally experiencing the thing being described as opposed to just reading some random words on a page.

This is why we find ourselves drawn to characters even when we know they are not real. The research conducted by the American neuroscientist Anne Krendl offers us compelling evidence of this.

Participants in her study had their brains scanned whilst they watched a Clint Eastwood film. When the actor’s character displayed emotion, the viewer’s brain responded as if it, too, were experiencing the same feeling.

It seems that we don’t just passively consume a story, we experience it as if it were actually happening to us.

This is also occurring at a hormonal level within the body.

When you’re reading, watching or listening to a story certain chemicals are released into the brain which impact how you process and remember this information.

When you listen to a character driven story, your brain immediately floods with the love hormone oxytocin. This induces a feeling of empathy or connectedness with the protagonist.

The opposite is true for a tense scene.

In this scenario, the stress hormone cortisol is released which prompts a powerful emotional reaction even when the listener knows the story is fictional.

As noted in an earlier post, vivid emotions play a key role in memory formation. The social psychologist Jennifer Aaker even quantified this saying, “We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than a fact.”

Try to keep this figure in mind when creating your own stories. 

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How to guarantee your story will be memorable

Do you remember where you were on September 11th 2001?

Chances are you’ll recall it fairly vividly.

How about September 10th 2001?

This time you’ll likely find yourself drawing a blank. Why is that?

How are you able to remember one specific day many years ago but you can’t remember what you were doing the day before that day?

It is all to do with your way your memory stores information. 

Frankly speaking, the brain doesn’t pay much attention to boring things. This is because they pose little threat to us and therefore we don’t gain much from remembering them.

However, an emotionally charged event stays longer in our memory.

It is also recalled with greater accuracy than neutral memories, because of the release of dopamine by the amygdala. This a primitive part of our brain that is associated with the fear response and memory formation.

This serves a clear evolutionary purpose.

Any dangerous or life threatening experience is committed to memory as a way of ensuring a similar thing doesn’t happen again. 

This explains why you can vividly remember what you were doing on September 11th 2001 but not on the previous day.  

If you were to experience a similar scenario in the future your memory would remind you that the best chance of survival would be to leave the building as quickly and safely as possible. 

As a storyteller you can use this knowledge to your advantage. 

Any story that elicits a strong emotional response will be recalled with far greater intensity than one that doesn’t.

The lesson here is don’t make your story boring.

If it’s not strongly appealing to one of the universal six emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust) or four if you believe this study by Glasgow University then it won’t be remembered.

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