The power of storytelling

During my working life, I have read thousands of pages about marketing and advertising – most of it fascinating, some of it a little disconcerting. But what is currently emerging in this sector is its awakening to the power of storytelling.

The brainpower of some of the cleverest people on the planet, and astronomical sums of money, have been directed towards the dark arts of marketing and advertising. In recent decades, much of this investment has been ploughed into understanding how the brain works: read Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ to grasp System 1 and System 2 thinking, for example.

And the latest of these neurological findings is that our brains respond best to storytelling. Now who would have thunk it!

We all love and respond to stories. From infancy, we have been exposed to them – through myths, fables, rhymes, ‘fairy stories’. They teach us moral codes, how to interpret the complex world around us. Ancient religious texts, with their parables, understood – even back then – how our brains relate best to stuff like moral guidance. The Mayans had their creation stories: so too the Egyptians, the Hopi. And today, it’s still through storytelling that we make sense of – and indeed shape – our world. Who isn’t touched by Frodo’s courage? By the power of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. By ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. Perhaps in this crazy, 24/7, always on, fast-paced Brave New World, we need stories more than ever.

But in the end, we never needed science to tell us that our brains respond to stories and that we make sense of it all (even our memories) in story form. We knew that already. That’s why we gathered together in caves and listened. Why we read books. Why we watch movies.

So go tell your stories. Go touch hearts and minds. Go change the world!

 

Liz Sandbach 16/3/2016

 

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Jodie by Tom Ireland

I was conceived 5 miles above the Sahara  and my first thoughts were recorded on an airline vomit bag. By the time we landed at Yundum International airport I was 555 words old, though I lost 168 of those on the return journey. I had been preconceived as a short story, then lay in a drawer in an untidy room for years until I was reborn as the prologue to a book. Last night I was carried into a room full of writers and listened to poetry about puzzles, love and loss. There was a story about a mechanical fairy. I knew she was a sister because she too had been constructed. The humans in the room were tribal writers, and I witnessed a cake ceremony. A large soft square object, a cake, was placed before an elder. This man took a knife and ritually slaughtered the cake which then was taken from him and butchered into pieces. While this process was carried out a psalm or praise song was performed by every voice

These pieces were then shrouded in paper – good paper which could have been used for writing, creating beings kin to me and the fairy – the shrouded slices were delivered reverentially to the tribe’s people who devoured them so that not a morsel remained. The paper shrouds were crumpled and discarded. In all my 657 words I have never before seen such a sight. I fear for my life, and that of the fairy. We characters are frail creatures.

Study of Homoscribeans in the Wild (Blue Cap) by Debbie Mitchell

 

As an anthropologist of some standing, I have quietly observed the behaviour of this  particular tribe of Homoscribeans (Homo-scribe-ee-ans) for many years, by pretending to be one.

 

I regard myself as Cheshire’s answer to Dian Fossey. But rather than studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda, I have chosen this group of primates in their own habitat (Blue Cap).

 

This log relates to the tribe’s monthly gathering on Monday, 7th March 2016:

 

A good number of the Scribes arrived at the gathering place, including a new one (Trevor) who ventured into the fold for the first time. The dominant male of the group (Bob) welcomed him.

 

This intelligent, social species likes to keep its assemblies well structured – and each gathering usually begins with a writing exercise. This month’s topic was the blog, and the lack of members offering to write it. The task was to think of ways of making it a more appealing prospect, so that more of the tribe got involved.

 

I realised that to keep my cover intact, I ought to engage more with the group’s activities, and so I put my hand up when the dominant male (Bob) asked for a volunteer to write this month’s post. Of course I now realise that in doing so, my cover (eminent Primatologist masquerading as a Scribe) has been completely blown. I hope this does not mean rejection from the herd.

 

Every monthly conclave of the Homoscribeans is a lively affair, comprising members’ news, group news, readings, feedback from readings, dates for the diary and so on. Rather than document every interaction (due to the fact that my note taking is rubbish and my memory is even worse) I shall relate some of the highlights from the March meeting.

 

A ripple of excitement was sparked when the youngest member of the colony (Natalie) announced that her novel, Clockwork Evangeline, had won first prize in a competition, and she had also had success with placing some of her short stories. The news prompted the group to slap their hands together in the manner of sea-lions.

 

There was more joy to come, when the alpha male (Bob) held up a paperback copy of his book, Last Gasp. I understand having a paperback book with your name written on the front is somewhat of a big dream and a goal for many, if not all, of the Homoscribeans.

 

The readings were, as per, of a very high standard. The leading poetess of the tribe (Tonia) recited something beautiful and romantic which spoke of the sea. A piece of work which, without question, should have won that competition in Liverpool. The tallest member of the group (Bill) also read out a poem about love, but this one contained the word snot – which means it probably would have won that competition in Liverpool.

(NB/ please do not read this as a slight against Liverpool. It is a reference to that particular competition).

 

Possibly the most interesting observation of the evening came when food was introduced into the pack. The nurturing female (Steph) had produced a magnificent cookies and cream cake to celebrate the Big Birthday of the (most?) senior member (Tom).

 

It was at this point that the well-ordered gathering broke down into noisy chaos as each member shoved their faces into the trough and devoured slices of the foodstuff. Although there were dainty forks and napkins, anarchy reigned in the gathering place (Blue Cap) for the time it took for the members to sate themselves. I truly have never witnessed anything like it. It was a feeding frenzy. It made Serengeti lions laying into a baby springbok look like a Downton Abbey tea party. That poor poor cake. It never stood a chance.

 

Once appetites had been satisfied, the rest of the evening progressed without incident. I think. My rubbish note taking and even worse memory means I can’t remember.

 

And so, I hope this gives some insight into the extant primate group known as Homoscribeans.

 

Intelligent, social – and very hungry.

 

 

The death of long words. Or hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia

‘Never use a long word when a short one will do.’ Yes, I’m sure we’ve all heard that one. And yes, it is a valid point. Using pompous language is a no-no in anyone’s book (although some books do subscribe to it!). It only serves to make you sound self-important. And it can be a huge turn-off for readers – think bureaucratic gobbledygook, the unnecessary use of foreign (particularly Latin) phrases –sesquipedalia verba anyone? Turned off yet?

If you’re unsure of what constitutes a pompous or foot-and-a-half-long word (FAAHLW), go to ‘pompousasswords.com’ and you’ll see the condemnation of ‘outré’, ‘fecund’, ‘inchoate’, ‘moribund’. Now I have no quibble with the first of this list, as it smacks of affectation, but what’s wrong with ‘fecund’ or ‘moribund’?

Are we now to banish all words if they are not the simplest, shortest on offer? Are we now to bow to the minimalists who would reduce our language to the lowest common denominator? We are fortunate indeed to enjoy the English language in all its glory – deemed the richest spoken language in the world (in terms of vocabulary). Are we now bound to use only a fraction of this wonderful word-stock?

I was once castigated (or should I say ‘told off’? Now there’s a puzzle. Castigated is a longish word but doesn’t commit the sin of using two words when a single one will do – see my dilemma?) for using ‘cacophony’. Now what is wrong with cacophony? It’s a great word – onomatopoeic (oops, another FAAHLW) and just a downright joy as it rolls off the tongue.

My argument is this: if we use only the short, simple words from our rich language, we are in danger of ‘dumbing it down’ and losing its variety and nuances. It’s our heritage – something we should own proudly and use to the full. And surely we can do that without sounding pompous or arcane. Don’t be afraid. Go for it. Use words. Use them or lose them!

 

Liz Sandbach 1/3/16