I vividly remember my first real reporting outing as an intern. I met Jill, who lived in a Salvation Army shelter for homeless families affected by HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. Jill told me about the moment she learned she was positive—and pregnant. The baby would be born infected.
Jill showed me the four vials of antiretroviral medication her daughter, then 2, had to take each day. She also gave me a tour of the apartment, their home, with visible pride over her child playing in the toy kitchen. Despite the hurdles, Jill became a mom and it changed her for good. She had a new story to write.
Before I left, Jill thanked me for letting her tell her story, saying it felt good to share.
As I’ve sat down with people in the 15 years since, I’ve heard the same sentiment again and again.
But let’s back up: What’s a story, anyway?
I think your story is simply a piece of you, packaged up to share—even if it’s only with yourself.
It’s when we name our experiences that we come to understand them in a new way—especially our own. More importantly, stories help us to understand each other, to see past any label and instead see the person.
So allow me to riff on story (one of my favorite subjects) for a minute. Let’s break it down: What is story? Why do stories matter? Why does your story matter? And how can you claim it?
What is story?
Story is practically as old as time itself.
“The story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in The Language of the Night.
It’s a “symbiotic exchange,” one we learn to negotiate in infancy. We even look for a story when it’s not there as researchers found in a 1944 study of college students shown a short film of moving shapes. When asked what was happening, all but one participant came up with a story to explain what the movements were about.
People have always told stories, passing down lessons and legends. These stories allow us to go places we never thought we would and meet people we might have otherwise missed. It’s more than an account of one’s experiences, though—the narrative telling of an event. A story takes a string of events and adds meaning. It selects a batch of information and arranges the details to entertain, educate, inspire and more. And it can arrive in all kinds of forms from a movie, to a novel, an Instagram caption or a family yearbook.
Mark Twain said his first rule of writing was “that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.”
A story, then, is meant to make meaning.
And it’s for everyone, everywhere.
We’re all storytellers. It’s such a natural thing, you might not even realize you encounter story all day long.
I know you’re familiar with the most basic elements of story: characters; a beginning, middle and end; plot, conflict and resolution.
There’s a protagonist, who you come to care about, struggling in some relatable way. Something compels the protagonist to take action; her world is changed and something big is at stake. She faces obstacles along the journey and the tension rises as we see what kind of “hero” she will be. When she reaches a turning point, she can no longer see or do things the same way as before and ultimately, succeeds or fails.
Pay attention and you’ll see this classic story formula everywhere. It not only captures our attention and draws us in, but it’s how our minds organize reality, store information and make sense of our world in order to make decisions.
Why do stories matter?
Character-driven stories captivate us and can affect our behavior thanks to Narrative Transportation, which “hacks” our neurological responses. When your attention is captured, you come to share the emotions of the character and mimic their feelings and behaviors. That’s why you feel dominant after a James Bond movie or completely crushed after Old Yeller.
Stories can entertain, educate and inspire, and they can also enhance our empathy, motivating us to cooperate with or help others.
Studies show weeks later people better remember and understand a story (even recalling specific points) rather than data alone. In fact, Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says people remember information when it is weaved into narratives “up to 22 times more than facts alone.”
(Tip: Need to deliver information? Inject story with one of these prompts: “Every time I …” or “If only I had …” or “Imagine…” or “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”)
I’m willing to bet you’ve been transported by narrative, probably even today. It’s as simple as you opening your Instagram feed. Have you ever stopped on someone’s post about an experience and thought, how cool, let’s do that too—and then bought a ticket or some other related item? That’s story.
As Margaret Atwood said: “A word after a word after a word is power.”
Inuit families in the Arctic Circle have made use of that power.
In the 1970s, an anthropologist lived with and wrote about these families that lived in igloos and ate off the land. They had no heating systems and temperatures often reached -40* F. What really stood out to her was the extraordinary ability of the adults to control their anger. They considered it weak or childlike to even show frustration. She wrote a book, Never in Anger, but the lingering question remained: How do they instill this in kids? A reporter went back recently with that question in mind. She found the parents don’t shout or yell at small children and don’t believe in timeouts. Instead, they use storytelling to discipline.
Storytelling for discipline?
Yes. Instead of saying, “Don’t go near the ocean where you could drown,” a mom will tell her child a story about a sea monster inside the water with a giant pouch on its back just for kids. “If you walk too close to the water, the monster will drag you out and adopt you to another family.”
Which would you say is more memorable?
Even a fictional story can motivate behavior, including instilling kindness.
Psychology researcher Dan Johnson published a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as “outsiders.” Interestingly, the more absorbed in the story the readers were, the more empathetic they behaved in real life. And that capacity to “be kind” is believed to begin in early childhood, when family routines (including singing, telling stories, reading, playing, eating dinner together) play a role in developing strong “empathy muscles.”
Why does your story matter?
You’ve heard the saying: Everyone has a story.
That is 100% true. No one has ever lived your same experience—and no one ever will.
There’s even a journalist who set out to prove it with the story of a 10-year-old boy.
In 1992, Susan Orlean wrote an Esquire cover story: “The American Man at Age Ten.”
She takes us into the world of an “entirely un-famous subject,” a 10-year-old boy named Colin Duffy. Other Esquire cover subjects from the same year included the likes of Howard Stern, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, George H.W. Bush and Winona Ryder. But Orlean profiled a pre-adolescent boy.
The story is about youth and innocence and remembering one’s childhood—about possibility, imagination, freedom. About an ordinary, interesting boy.
Words have long been our most powerful tool, and yet they are so often underutilized.
What about when it comes to you? How often do you think about your words? Or the words you use to describe yourself?
Who’s covering the story of your life?
As the venerable Brené Brown says: “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”
When you define your experience, understand it more fully and own what makes it yours then you can stop worrying about second-guessing yourself, wondering if you’re making an impact, worrying you’re not quite “enough,” fearing you’re not where you want to be. Instead, you’ll enjoy knowing who you are. You’ll wake up and look forward to confidently making an impact, to greeting people with enthusiasm and generosity, to sharing your story and passions with ease.
As one writer said: “Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story. the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested her.”
When you create and tell your story, you start to believe in yourself.
And what could matter more than that?
If we haven’t had the chance to *virtually* meet yet, hi! I’m Christin—professional editor and content strategist (aka word wingwoman) here to simplify content for creatives. If you want to show up consistently online, this NEW 5-day email series will show you how to plan your content for next quarter (and feel less overwhelmed doing it). It’s 100% free—you’ll be making better content (with less actual content) in no time! Get on the list for CONTENT CAMP.