Why Story Matters

Modern, effective communication is about engagement.

The following is an excerpt from a lecture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

When you share a story, you will spark a story. That is the power of story: it is an emergent form of communication, possessing the ability to tap into the experiences of your listener. You can connect seemingly abstract, new information to your listener’s existing web of knowledge.

This is why I prefer to speak about story sharing, rather than storytelling. It is more than a semantic difference. Telling is old school, pedantic, and pompous. Telling is transactional; it implies a giver and a taker. When you tell someone something, you shut down true communication. Modern, effective communication is about engagement. It’s about achieving resonance. It’s about moving beyond sympathy to empathy.

You hold immense power as future professional communicators: you will not simply be telling stories to audiences; you will be helping people to share theirs. If you are selling change (and you will probably be doing a lot of that on either the nonprofit or for-profit side, selling a change in situation or in a change in status), you want to enable your audience to see possibilities, solutions, and their part in them. You can help your listeners become the hero of the story.

And what a perfect time to realize and apply this knowledge. In today’s networked world, it is increasingly difficult for institutions to control communication. So business communication is moving from controlling dissemination to more democratic and dialogue-based communication.

Businesses are starting to understand that in a complex market, dealing with complex topics and complex people, story elicitation results in greater and deeper insights. Whether you are working to communicate a message to customers or the needs of customers to your future bosses, consider applying story as a tool for conveying complex emotions and truth.

There is a communications professor at Syracuse University’s school of Visual and Performing Arts who has recently had a profound impact on how I think about my work. Professor Amardo Rodriquez says, “Communication is more than a transmission or transference device—it is a way in which we connect with and realize our humanity.” In my work, I help people share their stories so listeners will find resonance and will share their own stories in return. This is how mutual communication helps advance humanity. The one thing I would like you to take away is that communication is more than transactional. Communication can be transformative.

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  • Jean Bota's avatar

    BY Jean Bota

    ON January 9, 2012 06:41 PM

    excellant, hear my applause !!

  • Hmm. Weren’t old stories shared instead of told? I thought that old ancient stories were part of a whole lexicon of cultural and shared experiences. So storytelling was never about telling or being pedantic, I think.

  • Excellent article Thayler!

    I’d like to emphasize and combine two key points of the article:

    1. “When you share a story, you will spark a story.”

    2. “You want to enable your audience to see possibilities, solutions, and their part in them.”

    One of the most important skills for change agents—whether leaders or coaches—is to help people see opportunities and generate creative solutions.

    When people feel frightened, beleaguered, and overwhelmed—typical responses during times of change and uncertainty—their emotional/physiological state makes it virtually impossible for them to see opportunities and generate creative solutions.

    Thus, change agent must be skilled at shifting people’s emotional/physiological state into an energized, empowered “can do” state.


    That’s where the change agent can use the power of the “I didn’t think I could…but I did!” story.

    This story theme or protocol involves first, sharing an example or two of situations where you felt stuck, overwhelmed, or simply not up for the challenge, but…. “went for it” and discovered you WERE up for it. You did successfully handle the situation.

    As part of the story, you can also describe your updated understanding of yourself.


    Doing this puts into practice the “When you share a story, you spark a story” principle.

    When you share a story, it elicits in the listener memories of their own version of that story.  Whether they tell you their story (we’ll get to that shortly) or not, your story triggers their mind to recall similar examples from their life. 

    As the legendary therapeutic storyteller and hypnotherapist Dr. Milton Erickson said: If you want someone to talk about what it was like being an adolescent, tell them about your experiences as an adolescent (or words to that effect).

    As the person hears your “I didn’t think I could do it…but I did!” story, they are both consciously and unconsciously recalling their own similar experiences of going from “I didn’t think I could do it…but I did!”

    Hearing your story (or stories) can by itself shift them into an empowered, determined, energized state.

    Now that they are in that state, you can ask them to explore possible opportunities and creative solutions to their current challenge. Because our emotional state profoundly affects our cognitive abilities and our perceptions, now that they are in an energized, inspired emotional/physiological state, they are FAR more capable of seeing possibilities and generating creative solutions.

    Thus, by sharing your story, you help them “to see possibilities, solutions, and their part in them.”


    You can apply the “When you share a story, you will spark a story” principle to make this technique far more powerful by asking the person to share their own example of “I didn’t think I could do it…but I did!” experience, after you have shared yours.

    Before hearing your story, they probably would not have been able to think of such examples,  because they were in an overwhelmed, beleaguered, “can’t do” emotional/physiological state. Due to the phenomenon of State Dependent Learning and Memory, when we feel overwhelmed and scared, it’s far easier to recall memories associated with those emotions than examples of when we felt empowered and acted effectively.

    By sharing your “I didn’t think I could do it…but I did!” story and shifting their emotional/physiological state to one of empowerment and creativity, you help them gain access to their memories associated with empowerment and creativity.

    As they tell you THEIR story or stories of surprising themselves over their ability to face a challenge and/or come up with creative solutions, they access even more powerfully the emotional/physiological state of empowerment, along with a “can do” mind-set.


    Now that they are in this empowered state, ask them about the opportunities and possible solutions they can see NOW in their current situation.

    It never ceases to amaze me both from my own experience as well as teaching and coaching others how powerfully an emotional/physiological shift can affect one’s perception and cognitive abilities.

    When you help someone shift from a disempowered emotional/physiological state to an empowered state, where once there were only obstacles and impossibilities, suddenly one sees solutions and opportunities.

    Sharing stories and sparking stories of “I didn’t think I could do it…but I did!” is a powerful way to help someone see their situation with fresh, optimistic, innovative eyes.



  • BY Andrew Melville

    ON January 15, 2012 05:58 PM

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Stories are ALL about our humanity, and I believe we are deeply hard-wired to respond to stories as a primal learning tool, in days when sharing and comprehending stories were a matter of life or death.

  • BY Paul Shoemaker

    ON January 15, 2012 08:58 PM

    I love it. We have spent the last 2-3 years across the network truly learning the power of stories. Real outcomes. social metrics matter too, but they don’t come to life and inspire and humanize until you share the story that goes with the data. The heart to go with the head. Here is one to share with you, Thaler - Thank you

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 18, 2012 05:14 PM

    Paul, Andrew, David, thank you all for your comments.

    Paul, thank you for sharing the importance of story as a qualitative evaluation tool - and, through the video, illustrating how effectively story provides meaning to data.

    David, you write about people feeling “frightened, beleaguered, and overwhelmed—typical responses during times of change and uncertainty”. One tool for helping ease such fright is to share clear stories of the future that are connected to stories of the present, and the past. Then, the narrative becomes one of continuity, and forward movement, as opposed to change.

  • BY Danny Debi

    ON January 25, 2012 06:10 AM

    Well said! Stories are so powerful, yet I’m often amazed how few business leaders actually use it as a way to share (meaningful) information

  • BY Anat Magal

    ON July 19, 2012 05:15 AM

    wish you could read my project. it’s all in Hebrew -  I’ve collect & share 365 stories of women in Israel. i actually interview them, each day a women, during one year, and published that in my blog:

    it was inspirtual in a way that can’t be describe.. and now i’m on my way to the second project which also base on the power of sharing people stories.

    thanx for the information here, very intersting.


  • BY andrewnemiccolo

    ON October 12, 2012 04:42 PM

    Thaler, bravo! Thanks for framing this as more than “storytelling.” Listening matters. The recent popularity of storytelling for business, while wonderful, has had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a mindset in some people that stories are a zero-sum game. We see this in ideas like “Winning with stories” and “Story as weapon.”

    I like to think of it as Storytelling + Story Listening = Story Learning

    The conversation is what can lead to deeper engagement.

    Andrew Nemiccolo
    Seven Story Learning

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