When I chose the words “Story Magic” to describe what I do, I thought of it as little more than a placeholder: an act of whimsy that would suffice until “the right words” revealed themselves.
Despite witnessing clients achieve miraculous results (getting architects and marketers to offer services free of charge; landing jobs they weren’t “qualified” for; inspiring investors to part with huge sums of money) – simply by telling the right story, in the right way, at the right time – still, I wasn’t ready to call it “magic.”
Instead, I professed that story works “as if by magic.” Perhaps, on some level, I was waiting for some internet troll to denounce my choice of language and accuse me of making a promise I couldn’t possibly deliver.
Imagine my surprise and delight then, when (while researching a guest on the radio show I produce) I stumbled onto this definition:
“Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.”
Suddenly, I found myself re-considering the amazing array of facts I’ve encountered over the years about how storytelling affects the brain, and feeling as though a dozen puzzle pieces had fallen perfectly into place.
Here are just five amazing facts that make storytelling an inherent act of magic:
1. As soon as you say the words, "once upon a time..." my brain automatically suspends doubt.
Just starting a story creates an open loop in my brain. From that moment, I have a single subconscious imperative:
Close. That. Mother. Effing. Loop.
You say “something happened,” and I want to know what happens NEXT. As long as you don't abuse my time or trust, I am predisposed to stick with your story until the loop gets closed.
This is why every TV show in human history ends the season on a cliffhanger – after the gun has gone off but before we see whether is was Scarlett or Angelina who took the fatal bullet – because our biological need to close that damned loop ensures that we keep tuning in, week after week.
2. Listening to your story gives ME a vicarious experience of the things that happened to YOU.
If in your story you say that you broke your leg, the part of my brain that lights up (in addition to my language processing centers) is the same part that would light up IF I HAD ACTUALLY BROKEN MY LEG. Go ahead, read that again, it's amazing.
Thanks to nifty little things called mirror neurons, everything that happens to you in your story is also happening to ME in my imagination. Since the brain doesn't distinguish much between real and imagined events, it's pretty much like I get to live your life, think your thoughts, and feel your feelings for the duration of your story - and so does everyone else in your audience.
3. At the same time, my brain translates YOUR story into MY ideas and experiences.
A process called “neural coupling” helps my brain relate your experiences to my own, and thus to receive your story as relevant to my life, even though our experiences might be very different.
4. I receive a juicy chemical reward whenever your story packs an emotional punch.
An emotional charge triggers the release of dopamine – the same feel-good chemical associated with love, sex, and certain recreational drugs. This makes it easier later on for me to remember your story, and to recall facts with greater accuracy. (Did you know that facts are 20 TIMES more likely to be remembered if they are presented as part of a story?)
5. Anthropologists estimate that as much as 70% of ALL human learning happens through story.
Which is why the Hopi say:
“He who tells the stories, rules the world.”
As much as we live in a world of accelerating change, one thing that has remained pretty much the same over centuries is the structure of the human brain - and this it what makes everyone vulnerable to the power of a well-told story.
And yet! The Internet has totally changed the game by democratizing the tools and platform of the storyteller. Now, anyone and their mother can create a website in the morning and be blathering into the void before lunch. The result is that we are up to our eyeballs in mediocre, single-track stories. And your audience has learned – by way of self-protection – to tune out the noise.
The bottom line is that old story forms no longer cut it. The Hopi proverb needs updating. The power of story remains, but the definition of "well-told" has changed.
The one-way story is dead. The days of the broadcast, the monologue, the self-congratulatory story – are over.
If you truly want to make magic with your stories? You need to get much more creative about how – and why – you tell them.