The Wisdom of Story-telling

by Mike Clayton  - April 11, 2012

Stories are a way of passing wisdom from the teller to the listener.� This has been known for as long as there have been storytellers and audiences, and many of our greatest stories from all of humanities cultures contain deep and lasting truths.� As I observe my daughter�s enthusiasm for many of the traditional fairy tales, it is easy to be jaded by these commonplace stories that have become denuded of any novelty by the many years since I first heard them.� Yet to toddlers and young children, the wisdom they contain and the clarity of their narrative are as fresh as they hundreds or even thousands of years ago when their first prototypes were narrated on a dark winter�s night.

Engine House Theatre's production of Little Red Riding HoodAnd their power entrance even an old cynic like me remains, when in the hands of skilled modern story-tellers.� We took our daughter to a theatrical re-telling of Red Riding Hood.� She loved it and I was amazed at how cleverly the original story was refreshed by the playwright (Mike Kenny) and actors.� There was plenty that was fresh and new for me, whilst the story was true to the several versions of the original that Sophia loves.� Re-enacting that story is a big component of her play at the moment.


The Source of Power

The true source of story-telling�s power is not in the wisdom of its content, but in the effectiveness with which it delivers that content.

When we listen to a story, we can absorb the information into our brains particularly easily, in an almost unconscious manner, using what Daniel Kahneman refers to as �System 1�.� This is the source of our intuitive capability (distinguished from System 2, our conscious reasoning).� This form mental processing can accommodate far more information than we can consciously attend to and is adept at drawing out patterns and selecting for salience.� It pays particular attention to people, to relationships and to the familiar, making it particularly good at gleaning wisdom about our own social world.

Stories feed System 1 with imagery and complex narrative that it thrives upon.� They make sense of a complex world, without over simplifying it.� They draw us in� and engross us totally.

Human beings are story-telling creatures

Human beings are, naturally, story-telling creatures.� Our deep history was written around the camp-fires of old.� But most of us have lost the significance of that capability.� While we happily tell stories of yesterday�s hassles and our neighbour�s calamity, we do not use them as a means of relaying the complex and subtle information that matters most. When asked for explanations, opinions, motivation and inspiration, we too often turn to the abstract languages of business and management, science and technology or politics and sociology.

Yet it is stories that will convey your ideas most easily and most powerfully.

�Story-telling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.�
Hannah Arendt

�The principal vehicle of leadership is the story�
Howard Gardner


My thanks to David Weller for prompting this article, in his response to my question �What are your examples of the difference between smart and wise behaviour?� at the LinkedIn Smart to Wise Group.� Not only was David�s answer thought-provoking, but his was the first response in the group.� Thank you David.

You can join the Smart to Wise LinkedIn group here.

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