The Power of Story

Power of story

Alfred Hitchcock understood the power of story. He was a bold storyteller. Mixing recurrent themes like the ordinary person, the wrong person, the likeable villain, the observer, stairways, mothers, heroines, silent scenes, sexuality, and distilled wine, he tempered fear and fantasy with a good dose of realism and humor.

This last bit was critical and it varied with his collaborations. Black humor, parody, farce/screwball comedy (Cary Grant's style) and romantic comedy in his films entertain and reveal. The greater his creative freedom from the pressure of the studios, the more tongue-in-cheek. 

The director knew that people don't want to be educated, nor do they want to be tricked—as he discovered in Sabotage, a flop. People want a magical experience. Happening in another time and place. All stories are about change. 

Federico Fellini felt that film, like any art form, is designed to transmit a subverting truth. Every time you have a character reacting or adapting to a situation, going through trials, and returning changed, you have a story. Stories are about transformation

But stories also
create expectations.

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are contribute to creating our world. So we should choose our story carefully. And be deliberate about changing it when it does not serve us anymore. Win over the gravitational pull of inertia.

Nicholas Thompson is the current editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, and former at Wired. He's also a multi-generational, veteran long distance runner. To run his best marathon at age 44, he had to outrun his past.

“All it took was tech, training,
and a new understanding of my life.”

Running is simple to do. All you need is a good pair of shoes, support in your gear for the right parts, and off you go.

“The math about how to get better at running, at least at a first approximation, is fairly simple. There's the body's fitness: how efficiently you can uptake oxygen and move it to your muscles. Then there's your running economy: mainly how efficient you are at moving oxygen while at a given speed. And then there's how much you weigh. To improve the first two factors, you run harder and smarter and avoid getting hurt. To decrease your mass, you eat more spinach and less ice cream.”

But in the simplicity is the complexity of the human physiology—blood oxygen levels, lactate, muscular strength, a genetic component—and psychological factors.

Sports physiologist Tim Noakes says that part of the reason we slow is because our brain is telling our body to stop because it's scared. It's protection mechanism, it doesn't want you to get hurt. Thompson found that he didn't push past his best record in his thirties because he didn't want to.

Stories seem simple, too. But they're very difficult to dislodge. They get baked into our subconscious. They're everywhere in culture. And now we have social media. Where select stories of success create expectations for everyone. Dale Carnegie on steroids.

But also, the best story wins.
Not the most accurate.
Not the most truthful.
Not even the most valuable. 

When the story you tell yourself limits your creativity and imagination, change the story:

  • facts over beliefs
  • align how you make choices (strategy) with how your do things (habits)
  • broaden your canvas
  • power in the ability to reframe (e.g., obstacles as opportunities)
  • built new relationships and exchanges

Steven Spielberg, another film maker, understands how stories get diverse people to come together in a single moment. And yet, retain their individuality:

“I hear amazing stories. The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time. But you can’t get everybody to interpret the result in the same way. And that’s thrilling to know — that everybody will see it differently.”

Adman Rory Sutherland suggests a small change of posture can make a big difference. I love his example about travel:

“Making a train journey 20 per cent faster might cost hundreds of millions, but making it 20 per cent more enjoyable may cost almost nothing.

It seems likely that the biggest progress in the next 50 years may come not from improvements in technology but in psychology and design thinking. Put simply, it’s easy to achieve massive improvements in perception at a fraction of the cost of equivalent improvements in reality.”


Stories help people remember what matters

Beyond food, companionship, and shelter, people need stories. Their absence shatters lives. I have more on this in the article about transformation.

There's a beautiful African proverb that illustrates the universal principle of storytelling:

“I put my story down,
so that someone else
may pick it up.”
I am happy to talk to anyone who wishes to share feedback or needs help telling a new story
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