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When Did We Start Telling Stories … and Why?

Posted by Jonathan Klane on Apr 13, 2021 11:39:22 AM

It’s 100,000 years ago on the savanna. You and your clanmate are returning from some nearby foraging. There is a gentle breeze blowing toward you, and the tall grass is gently bending. Some birds were chirping. It’s quiet now – in fact, it’s too quiet. The hairs on your back are standing up. You glance back and spot it – a saber-toothed tiger! You both burst into a sprint for your lives! You’re just a stride or two ahead of your clanmate, and you can hear the Smilodon pounce! You hear the bloodcurdling scream cut off and the rending of flesh, the breaking of bones! And you keep running, and running, and running …

You arrive at your cave out of breath. Your clanmates gather around you. They want to know what happened. You stagger over to the wall, pick up a piece of charcoal and begin drawing. You make some lines, some arrows, and a few Xs. You step back and look at it – yes, it depicts this well. And then you tell them about the graph you’ve drawn.

“As you all can see from my time-bounded graph, our Smilodon-induced fatalities had trended upward for the preceding two moons with a peak in raw numbers at five last moon when our hunting party was fatally surprised by three Smilodons. At this rate, in 3 more moons, our clan will reach criticality and will no longer be sustainable.”

You look at your clanmates, and they stare back at you in wonder and curiosity.  What? No story?!  

Stories have been with us since we could communicate. Studies of specific myths indicate that they go back at least 20,000 years, and stories in general likely much further. 


Obviously, it’s how we communicated, especially since life is a sequence of events (scenes), involving people (characters), having a path or arc (plot), with critical stages (climax), and an outcome (what’s at stake). I think you can see my point.  

But there is so much more to stories and narratives. They are how we facilitate relatability to others, including bonding. [I’ll be writing about that more in blog #2: “Excuse me, sir, are you okay?”]. They help us make sense of our place in both the macro world and our microworlds. 

And they play a significant role in cognitive science. They are pretty darn powerful. So, why don’t we use them more? That’s a great question.  

In the hard sciences, we have equated stories with anecdotes and have devalued them as a usurper of data’s importance. This has been an incorrect approach to seeing their power to tell the story, including our data. Data and stories go hand in hand – they’re not binary (data terminology) nor a zero-sum game (psychosocial phrase). Thankfully in recent years, there has been a broad movement to use storytelling effectively in the sciences.  

Narratives and storytelling have their day in the sun. Storytelling is growing as the norm, with storytellers being sought out for their “particular set of skills.” Studies have shown that some storytellers in tribes have been shown to increase cooperation and consequently to tribal benefits; they are “preferred social partners [with] greater reproductive success.” That sounds pretty good to me. Storytelling skills would seem to be a selected evolutionary trait.

So, what’s stopping you from using them more? If you’re like most of us, you haven’t been exposed to the science (and art) of effective storytelling, including the empirical data that supports it as a tool, technique, and strategy.  

In this micro-blog series – “3-minute micro-stories” – I’ll be sharing many of the methods and reasons behind them and, of course, as narratives. You can likely read each one in about 3 minutes or so. Here’s one more micro-story for you. It’s about my Dad, who was my first storytelling teacher and mentor.  

My Dad sold shoes for a living. Oh, not in stores like Al Bundy – my Dad traveled all over New England and upper-state NY selling to stores. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. I remember back in the ‘70s, and I went on a sales trip with him. I would’ve been in my early teens at the time. We stopped at a roadside diner for a late bite to eat. 

As we walked in, several people saw us and yelled out, “Hi Keith!” It was like that frequent scene in cheers (“Norm!”) before there was the show. That was my Dad.  

Later in life, I was married and had moved up to Maine, a couple of states away. My then-wife was getting her degree, and so my folks came up to help us celebrate. In the crowded gym where commencement ceremonies were, we spot my Dad, talking with two gentlemen. Later in the ceremony, the two men were honored by the college for their contributions. They were the Levine brothers, Levine’s Department Store owners – an icon for decades in downtown Waterville. 

My Dad had sold them shoes over the years, and they chatted as old friends do.  

Years later, my Dad passed away from lung cancer due to a lifetime of smoking, starting as a teen and reinforced as a sailor in WWII when they’d give the GIs cigarettes. At his funeral, my brother, sister, my oldest nephew, and I all told stories about him both as eulogies and later with loved ones back at the house. I still recall 25 years after that, so many of his old friends and family said the same thing how they loved all of the stories about my Dad. He was larger than life, and they said we’d captured his spirit well.  

So, as you can see, stories have the power to transport us, frame episodes, and make sense out of our lives. You can (and I’d offer should) use narrative in many forms of communications. 

Some examples to get you primed include training, conversations about risk, team building, meetings, and casual conversations. Drop me a line and tell me your story.  

How are you using stories to relate, make sense, persuade, and contextualize your data? Start telling your stories.  

Next: Excuse Me Sir, Are You Okay?

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