Why story is 20 times better than bare facts

Mar 18, 2021

The power and effectiveness of story lies in its ability to forge connections - between people, and between people and ideas. Stories are a great way to communicate shared values and aspirations. And there’s science to prove the effectiveness of stories.

Stories work really well in a business context. A blog on the website of Harvard Business Publishing puts it like this: “An organization’s stories, and the stories its leaders tell, help solidify relationships in a way that factual statements encapsulated in bullet points or numbers don’t.”

The author, senior manager Vanessa Boris, quotes an example of a business meeting: “At Company A, the leader presents the financial results for the quarter. At Company B, the leader tells a rich story about what went into the ‘win’ that put the quarter over the top. Company A employees come away from the meeting knowing that they made their numbers. Company B employees learned about an effective strategy in which sales, marketing, and product development came together to secure a major deal. Employees now have new knowledge, new thinking, to draw on. They’ve been influenced.”

Another strength of story is the ability to appeal to a wide range of people, regardless of how they prefer to absorb information. Paul Smith, author of Lead With a Story, writes: “Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes. Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller’s voice. Kinesthetic learners remember the emotional connections and feelings from the story.”

Organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser found that learning which stems from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for far longer, than learning derived from facts and figures. And psychologist Jerome Bruner actually put a figure on the effectiveness of story. According to Vanessa Boris in her blog, “Bruner’s research suggests that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story.”

In his essay ‘The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains’, entrepreneur and storyteller Leo Widrich  identifies research which suggests that when we hear a story, “not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are, too.”

And Lisa Cron, in Wired for Story, speaks to additional benefits of sharing stories in business settings. “Stories allow us to simulate intense experience without having to actually live through them. Stories allow us to experience the world before we actually have to experience it.”

We feel stories with such intensity because the stories trigger chemical reactions in the brain.  Chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain when we hear a story. Cortisol helps create memories. Dopamine keeps us engaged. And oxytocin - the feel-good chemical associated with empathy - helps us create, build and maintain deep connections and relationships.

Lani Peterson, a psychologist, professional storyteller and executive coach, sums it up like this: “It’s important that we embed storytelling in our organizational cultures and in our learning programs. Storytelling is essential. If you’re trying to engage, influence, teach, or inspire others, you should be telling or listening to a story, and encouraging others to tell a story with you.”