Storytelling

“Let me take y’all back mannnnn as I do so well” – J. Cole

Other than discussing the science behind foot fetishes, Andrew Schulz did have a moment of reflection on his Flagrant podcast when the conversation led to a discussion about storytelling. When Huberman brought up a study that shows how people’s heart rates sync up when listening to the same story told in different locations and at different times, Schulz exclaimed that it sounds crazy but it must be true. He has been learning to tell better stories in his comedy routine as he realized how crucial a good story is to hold everyone’s attention at larger venues. 

That conversation made me think about the power of stories and how I may have overlooked it in my life. That made me want to write a blog post about stories: why they are so important to us and how to get better at telling stories.

But first, what is a story? Not all words spoken or written down are stories: math proofs, academic papers, and the random cloud of words spewed by a drug addict are not considered stories. Stories have a certain pattern, entrenched into our neural circuits so that we can almost always effortlessly organize our sensory input into stories, instantly recognize when a story is being told, and easily remember and share stories with each other. Anyways, after some web surfing here is the definition I come to:

An agent of choice lives their normal life, with a desire to solve a problem.

An opportunity arises and the agent struggles against difficulties to resolve the problem.

The agent returns to their normal life changed, learning a lesson. 

Agent of choice 

  • Every story needs a protagonist. This agent is the protagonist of the story. 
  • Why an agent of choice? The protagonist needs to choose to solve the problem, otherwise there will be no story to tell. The story is also driven by the choices the agent makes throughout the story.

Normal life

  • The normal life of the protagonist makes people relate to and understand the choices that the protagonist makes. Relatability is important because it makes us empathize with the character, making us care and making the story more impactful and significant.

Problem

  • The problem motivates the story; without it, normal life would have just continued. 
  • It can be any big or small inconvenience the protagonist has, from tripping over to saving the world.
  • The decision to go face the problem is often an important character trait of the protagonist.

Struggles against difficulties

  • This is the meat of the story. Most of the story is going to be spent on describing the different difficulties and struggles the protagonist faces in order to solve the problem.

Learns a lesson

  • The takeaway from the story. Doesn’t have to be very profound, a “and that’s that” conclusion would work for most stories.

Now that we know what stories are, why are they so important? Sharing stories creates connections between people, and they form the foundation for cultures, values, and meaning in communities.

People feel connected with each other largely by shared experiences. Take one of your best friends or family for example. When you think about them you can also easily think of places you’ve been, the things you did there, and how it felt. Those are the basis of the stories that you share with them. 

And eventually the sharing and retelling of a specific set of stories over time creates culture and strengthens bonds in a community. From smaller communities like a local club in a high school, to nations and ethnic races of people, we all connect with each other through shared stories. For example, there is a vast array of stories that Chinese parents passed down to their kids by way of four letter adages, and those form the basis of many traditions and outlook on life. 

There is something magical about gathering a group of people to share stories with one another. From the dramatic theatrics of ancient Greeks to the modern comforts of a movie theater, from the cold dark basement of Dostoyevsky to loud vibrant drunks at a college reunion, from the newspaper read with a cup of coffee to a tranquil night by a warm campfire, time and time again we look to stories to find our personal identity and strengthen bonds with others. 

Being a great storyteller can not only bring people together, but also capture their attention and strongly influence them. It really is no mystery that the best selling books, even the non-fiction ones, all have great stories interwoven in its narrative. Now with that in mind, how can we get better at telling stories?

Perhaps the most straightforward and simple answer is just to practice. And it is much easier to practice storytelling by talking compared to writing, since there are many more opportunities to talk, and you get immediate feedback. That prompts us to look at people who verbally tell stories to other people for a living, like salesmen and stand up comedians. 

The best salesman doesn’t sell you a product; they sell you a problem, then offer the solution to the problem. Basically they are selling you a story. And the effectiveness of the sales is how well you buy the story. Things that we can learn from a salesman is to be confident, project your voice, to earn respect from the other person. Your image and presentability determines a large part of your credibility, so learn to put time and effort into that. 

Stand up comedians often draw their stories from their personal lives. Although you might be able to tell somewhat interesting stories without an interesting life, for that purpose it is much better if your own life is vibrant and interesting. And the central element of an interesting life in my opinion is passion. These people all have things they are extremely passionate about, and they are not shy to admit it, chase it, and maybe even fail at it. What we can learn from them is to not be afraid of things you want to do, decide to face and conquer whatever it is that is stopping you from doing those things, and turn your life into an epic tale.

A final tangent I want to go on is about the UFC. Their success doesn’t come from it being the biggest organization that matches the fighters against each other to compete for a belt, but from the effective stories it has produced. The fact that there is a frequently updated ranking and always a champion at each weight class automatically gives every participant a desire or problem to start with. The way the matches are organized automatically gives each person a worthy struggle and resistance to the problem they want to solve. The stakes couldn’t be higher: an MMA fight can get very bloody and people can get severely injured. With all that, the UFC puts the spotlight exclusively on the fighters, giving them every opportunity to do interviews, documentaries, and establish their character. Every upcoming fight is a chapter in the story that each fighter is writing for themselves, and the promotion reaffirms the characters each fighter puts on in front of the camera with their promotional trailers leading up to the fight. The commentators Rogan DC and Anik do a very good job pushing the storylines, saying things like “… is coming from a loss to …., so he is extra motivated tonight to get a win”, “sometimes a fighter wants to prove that their game is not just one dimensional, and they can also kickbox”. Doing this creates the “rabbit hole” we sometimes find ourselves in when we first explore a small area of information that we previously didn’t know. 

Anyways, storytelling is such a superpower. It’s one of the ways we have evolved to effectively remember and recall information, and a very effective way to communicate with others. When you tell a great story, it captures people’s attention, and a skillful storyteller can even modulate other’s feelings and thoughts through the story, influencing their decisions in the future. On top of all that, sharing the same emotional reaction and experience with people around you is the best and perhaps the only way to bond with others. Take a careful look around and you will realize that all of the larger than life figures, dead or alive, that wield power and influence over our society, are cemented in their positions by phenomenal stories told about them. Storytelling is such a superpower, and that fact fills me with a touch of regret and sense of urgency, as I am unfortunately rather unpracticed in this area.

Post Script:

Oops haven’t posted in a year. Lots of life updates happened. But I the great Foolish Bubbul will now have a lot more time to write blogs and stuff! I will see y’all more in the future hopefully.

Post-Post Script:

I know nobody is following us so far but let me just address our future followers you know.

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