the story behind storytelling

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Defining stories, narratives, and how to shape them in our communications.

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  • 1. THE STORY BEHIND STORYTELLINGAND HOW IT CAN INFORM OUR COMMUNICATIONSInternal Presentation | January 2013

2. ALMOST ANYTHING CAN BE A STORY 3. BUT NOT EVERYTHINGIS A GOOD STORY Badlands (1973) 4. A GOOD STORY HAS ONE OF TWO THINGS 5. IT EITHERPAINTS THE1 PICTURE IN ACOMPELLINGWAY Tree of Life (2011) 6. OR IT DRAGS2 YOU INTO ACOMPELLINGNARRATIVEArgo (2012) 7. A REALLYGREAT STORYDOES BOTHThe Deer Hunter (1978) 8. THERES A SCIENCE TO IT. Theres a scientific reason why these two elements make for good storytelling 9. PowerPoint presentationswith bullet points only activatethe language-processingparts of our brain.Bullet points only activate two little bullet points in your brain. Thats it.BROCAS AREAWERNICKES AREA 10. But when we are told a good story When we are told a good story, our whole brain lights up. Its our imagination at work. #Eureka! 11. THE READINGPROCESS IS ANINTERACTIONBETWEEN THETEXT AND THEREADERSIMAGINATION.Wolfgang Iser was one of the first reader-response theorists, and heargued that our imaginations work on two levels:1. On the level of the sentence: we imagine the events that aretaking place currently in the text (e.g. on page 20)2. On the level of the narrative: we imagine how the story willproceed and anticipate how it will end (e.g. what will happennext and who might die, etc.)Turns out he was right. 12. OUR BRAINS CAN RELIVE THESTORIES WE HEAR In terms of brain activity there is very little difference between experiencing something in real life, reading about it in a book, and hearing about it in a story. So When we hear that blueberry pie was delicious in the context of a story, our sensory cortex lights up. When we read John caught the baseball in the context of a story, our motor cortex lights up. Stories are able to activate our imagination on the level of the sentence. This is why painting a good picture is important. 13. AND THEY RESPOND TOLARGER NARRATIVES AS WELLBut stories also activate our imaginations on the level of the narrative. Inhis book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker talks about how our brainis fascinated with the direction that stories follow. When reading orlistening to a story, we are constantly imagining what characters will donext, who will die, who will befriend whom.This is the power of narrative. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (1997) 14. WE ARE HARDWIRED TO RECOGNIZE NARRATIVESWhy do we like stories so much? Some anthropologists believe that we are actually hardwired to like stories.For thousands of years, stories were the key to survival. They were a mode of communicating vital information in a compressed form (e.g. informationabout predators, prey, enemies, etc.) Better storytellers and listeners stood a better chance of surviving in this famously brutish and nasty world.Narratives helped people tell and remember stories. Our brains are good at recognizing patterns, and narratives are basically story patterns. 15. MORE ENGAGINGSTORYTELLINGMAKES CONTENTBETTER FOR SHARINGTo recap: good storytelling makes information much better for sharing and remembering. WITHAnd it functions on the level of the sentence and narrative.PEOPLE MORE MEMORABLE 16. WE ALWAYS TALK ABOUT WHAT MAKESGOOD TELLINGWe almost never talk about what makes a good narrative, oreven what a narrative is in the first place. 17. WHAT MAKES A GOOD NARRATIVE? 18. WHAT IS A NARRATIVE?First off, what is a narrative? Before we can construct agood narrative, we need to know what narratives are. 19. Countless genresLets start with what a narrative is not. A narrative is not the genre to which it belongs. There are countless genres. (Upstairs downstairs, fantasy, filmnoir, Robinsonade, coming of age, dystopian cyberpunk, spaghetti western.) They can refer to anything from the storys setting to its period to its toneto its obscure literary technique. One story can be associated with multiple genres.Genre doesnt dig deep enough. It doesnt tell you how the narrative is constructed; it tells you how it is dressed. For example, a film noir andspaghetti western can have the same narratives and characters. They can be constructed in exactly the same way. They can be built with the samebuilding blocks, but still be dressed differently. This doesnt make them fundamentally different stories. 20. A NARRATIVE IS A SHAPE Let me explain 21. VIRTUALLY EVERYNARRATIVE HAS ONETHING IN COMMON:A protagonist who is trying to achieve a goalWhat does almost every story have in common? A protagonist. And what is that protagonistdoing? Trying to achieve something.This achievement can be self-improvement the betterment of society the betterment ofa relationship getting a haircut whats important is that the achievement of this goalleaves the character, or the world of the story, somehow better off.MUST. KILL. VOLDE- MORT. JENNAY! DONTDIE!B A 22. B ATHE PLOT TRACESTHE PROTAGONISTSBPROGRESS TOWARDTHAT GOAL. AAnd the journey can have different shapes BHow the character gets from point A to point B, though, can vary. Its never aperfectly straight, linear path.Things can go badly at first, then very well. Or they can go badly for almostthe whole story. If we trace these paths in our heads, we start to recognizecertain narrative arcs again and again.A 23. THE FOUR ARCHETYPAL NARRATIVE ARCS Over the years weve gravitated towards four archetypal narrative arcs.Heros Journey Growing Upepic, adventure, fantasycoming of age, bildungsromanSUCCESS SUCCESSHell and BackWhen it rains, it poursconfessional, memoircomedy, tragedy, horrorSUCCESS SUCCESS 24. HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR A WHILEThese narratives have been around for a long time.EPIC OF GILGAMESH GOETHES WILHELM MEISTERS15TH CENTURY BCAPPRENTICESHIP1795 ADST. AUGUSTINES CONFESSIONSSOPHOCLES ANTIGONE 397 AD441 BC 25. AND ARENT GOING ANYWHERE And we still see them today. FINDING NEMO THE SANDLOT JUNO BRIDESMAIDS 26. A BRIEF HISTORY OF NARRATIVESHEROSTRAGEDY + JOURNEY COMEDYANCIENT GREEK (TRAGEDY +ANCIENT SUMERIAN: 15thc BCANCIENT GREEK (EPIC): 8th-6thc BC COMEDY): 5th-4th c BCEpic of Gilgamesh Homer, Hesiod, Sappho Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides,AristophonesHELL AND BACKMEDIEVAL LITERATURE: 500-1000 ADNEW CHRISTIAN TEXTS: 1st-4thc ADEARLY RELIGIOUS: 6th-1st c BCEpic poem, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, New Testament, St. Augustines Confessions,Confucius, Taoist, Sun Tzu, the TorahBeowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knightreligious autobiographiesDEFOES ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719)GROWING UPELIZABETHAN/JACOBEAN ERA: 1558- ENLIGHTENMENT: 1700-1800 AD ROMANTIC ERA: 1800-1837 AD1625 AD Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe, Pope, Swift, de Thackeray, Bronte sisters, Dumas, Flaubert,Jonson, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Cervantes Sade, Cooper, Byron, Hawthorne, Austen, ScottPOSTMODERN ERA: 1940- MODERNIST ERA: 1901-1940 ADVICTORIAN ERA: 1837-1901 ADSartre, Camus, Beckett, Orwell, Mailer, Miller, Kipling, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Joyce,Dickens, Bronte sisters, Thoreau, Hugo,Pinter, Bellow, Achebe, ONeill, Updike,Hemingway, Forster, Lawrence, T.S. Eliot,Melville, Eliot, Carroll, Hardy, Wilde, JamesBarthelme, PynchonFaulkner, Huxley, WoolfThese narrative arcs developed in different eras, for different reasons.TODAY -THE HEROS JOURNEY developed during the earliest years ofFranzen, Coetze, Allende, McEwan, Mitchell, conquest and exploration.Morrison, Roth, Murakami, Zadie Smith,-TRAGEDY and COMEDY became popular in Ancient Greece, during anBanville, Carey age of many gruesome, imperialistic wars.-HELL AND BACK developed shortly after the advent of Christianityand the confessional autobiography.-GROWING UP became popular because of our Enlightenmentobsession with education and self-improvement. 27. HEROS JOURNEYNarrative archetype that can be traced back to the very firstrecorded stories: Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf. These storiesfeature a protagonist who faces a virtually insurmountable goal andmust overcome several obstacles on the way to achieving that goal.Genres that typically have this narrative structure are: the epic, themystery, adventure, fantasy and sometimes the action movie.Finding Nemo The Lord of the RingsKill BillProtagonist: NemoProtagonist: Frodo Protagonist: The BrideGoal: finding his father Goal: protecting the ring/ vanquishing Goal: killing BillChallenge: jellyfish, dentists office,Sauron Challenge: Bills death squadfishing netChallenge: Nazgul, Watcher in the Water, orcs, etc. 28. HELL AND BACKNarrative archetype that has its roots in early confessional andautobiographical literature. It follows a character along a two-stepjourney: first away from success, then back toward success. (Inearly religious texts, this was seen as a wandering away from Godand pilgrimage back to God.) It is frequently used to tell stories ofsurvival and self-discovery. Genres associated with this type ofnarrative are: autobiography, memoir, war story and travelogue.Juno127 Hours Saving Private RyanProtagonist: Juno MacGuff Protagonist: Aron Ralston Protagonist: Captain John MillerGoal: self-discoveryGoal: survivalGoal: saving Private RyanChallenge: her pregnancy/societyChallenge: the boulder on his arm Challenge: WWII 29. GROWING UPThe coming-of-age story is an enduring narrative that speaks to ourpotential for growth and improvement. It usually follows a youngerperson as he or she matures in some way. This maturity can beeducational, emotional, financial or even artistic. Because the maturationand self-discovery processes are internal (inside the protagonists head),she is not always aware of her progress. Genres associated with thistype of narrative are: bildungsroman, early American rags-to-riches,western and even the modern high-school drama.The SandlotAlmost Famous My GirlProtagonist: Scotty Smalls Protagonist: William Miller Protagonist: Vada SultenfussGoal: gaining acceptance among friends Goal: becoming a respected music writer Goal: coming to terms w/ her mothers deathChallenge: new kid in town Challenge: only teenager in the group Challenge: her father, adolescence, TJs deat