Storytelling is the essence of our survival

Storytelling is the essence of our survival

What do Walt Disney, Yuval Noah Harari and Steve Jobs have in common?

Some may say fame, while others may say wealth. And while both may be true, there is a more important thing that unites them: the skill of storytelling. 

Steve Jobs, chairperson, CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc. was famous for his keynote speeches. He was known to agonize for hours over the details of his presentations, when launching new products or making an announcement. Ironically, it was not through dazzling special effects that he sold his iPhones and iPads to millions of people around the world, but through captivating stories. 

Jobs had an amazing ability to craft a narrative that resonated with people, and was able to hook his audience in suspense, all while wearing his iconic black turtleneck and jeans. His storytelling skills were so strong that he did not need to dress to impress, or employ special lights and fireworks to wow crowds.

Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of “Sapiens”, “Homo Deus” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” succeeded in telling the story of our species in a way that was both all-encompassing and entertaining. Harari not only understands the significance of storytelling in engaging readers and students, but claims that history is ultimately a complex network of stories we have told each other. For Harari, storytelling is the essence of our survival and prosperity. It is because of the tales we told, that we came to believe in capitalism, nations, justice, money, books and laws. “Money doesn’t have any value in itself; it’s just a story we invented that these little pieces of paper are worth a certain number of loaves of bread. As long as everybody believes in the story, it works,” he says.

In today’s world, storytelling is becoming a key skill for the job market. Employers across industries recognize that knowing how to create relatable narratives can sell anything from books, movie tickets, gadgets, experiences and even career paths to university students. Stories are also used to pass on traditions, belief systems and lessons from our own unique cultural history. A notable example of this has been the passage of stories amongst generations of Australian Aboriginals, known as The Dreaming. Before the European settlement of Australia, there were around 600 diverse Aboriginal populations, each with their own different language groups, dating back between an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 years. 

Despite the enormous changes to Australia’s political culture, The Dreaming, through song, dance, painting and storytelling, has succeeded in maintaining a link between present and future generations of aboriginals with their cultural heritage.

Simply put, when you hear an impactful or moving story, your brain reacts as if you are experiencing it yourself.

Maria Hanif Al-Qassim

There is a scientific explanation as to why stories affect us and help us connect with each other. A group of neuroscientists at Princeton University discovered a neurological connection between stories and the area of the brain responsible for empathy and compassion. These feelings are controlled by a chemical called oxytocin, which tends to increase when we are told well-crafted and relatable stories. They also found that when listening to a captivating story, the same areas of the brain light up in both the storyteller and listener.

Simply put, when you hear an impactful or moving story, your brain reacts as if you are experiencing it yourself.

Now that The Lion King is back in theaters, we are all reminded of that heartbreaking scene when Simba tries to wake his dead father, Mufasa. Who can forget the tears streaming down his animated eyes, and his choked up voice? Even 25 years after its original release, we experience the heartbreak, guilt, shame and fear Simba felt. It hardly matters that he was an animated fictional character in a Disney film. While none of us can truly relate to being a lion cub, we can all know how it feels to be sons and daughters. We can all relate to the emotions Simba felt.

Us humans are empathic creatures by nature. The mere personification of a cartoon character creates a lasting connection between that character and the audience, no matter their age, gender and nationality. It causes our bodies to release oxytocin and makes us place ourselves in Simba’s place (or Cinderella’s, or Bambi’s), and thus connecting us on a deeper level.

Knowing how and why stories affect us, can help us employ this valuable skill in both professional and personal spheres. Engaging narratives can mean many things: It can help charities attract more donations and open new doors for parents raising their children, just as much as it can sell products and services. In a TEDx Talk, NYU Masters student Amanda D’Annucci argued that “stories can heal, stories can teach, stories can inspire, stories can enlighten and stories can resolve.” With these words, she captured the power of storytelling perfectly.

  • Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view