The Power of Story

Book with illustrations and letters coming out of the page, showing the story coming to life.

What is a story? The dictionary definition is dull; it reads “a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events.” They are so much more! Stories are connections; between writers and readers across the world, between ancestors and their descendants, between friends and families. Stories are the way we connect and bond at the grandest and simplest of levels - they are the lifeblood of our cultures and societies.

I realised this when travelling back home from school on the bus last year. I was sitting, thinking; I knew I wanted to write an article about storytelling, but first needed to understand its significance. So I sat and tried to consider what stories were. What makes them so important and powerful?

The extent of stories in society began to dawn on me, and I realised they’re absolutely everywhere. I got even more philosophical and began to think about the connections we form by stories. I then had a sort of epiphany; I understood that across the world we are all interlinked by stories which connect us to each other, our pasts and our futures. This was too much for me then - I was tired from school and not in the mood for existential considerations of the interconnected nature of humanity. So I forgot all about these thoughts and never found time to write the article. Recently though, I watched a fascinating TED Talk about storytelling and everything came flooding back. These are very much my own thoughts and opinions, but I hope they inspire you in some small, friendly way…

Almost all content we consume tells a story; prose, theatre, TV, music, more. Even newspaper articles or blogs on Voices of Youth are fuelled by stories or anecdotes. They’re everywhere; perhaps you talked to a friend recently and swapped stories, or shared an amusing event you experienced on social media? If so, you told a story.

Why are stories so fundamental? Because they are intertwined with memory and imagination, and invoke emotional investment more than anything else. By its very definition, this is about our connections to the world and each other. We are more likely to do anything - be it watch a video, buy a product or support a charity/campaign - if we are emotionally invested in it. When hearing or reading a tale, we become emotionally invested in the story and the storyteller.

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.” – Isak Dinesen

How about memories and imagination - why are these important? To begin with, memories are simply fundamental. They are the records of life; our memories tell our stories, and stories are so often written from our memories. They are key to personal connections between writers and readers. Imagination is both similar and different to this; it is about daring to dream, to wonder, to envision a better world. It has incredible power to enthrall readers or viewers and help people to escape our stressful modern world. Simply, it brings joy. Dreaming and imagining also encourages creativity, innovation and working for a better world.

Whilst it is often easy to think that some stories are only written from memory (e.g. anecdote or autobiography), and others only from imagination (e.g. certain novels or scripts), the reality is far more subtle and complex. Memory and imagination are often intertwined; for example, a friend may exaggerate a tale, or a fantasy author may draw on their lived experiences in order to create realistic or relatable relationships and interactions between characters. In fact, the more a story interweaves both memory and imagination, the more interesting and powerful it will be for its audience.

Stories also evoke suspense and excitement, which can keep readers or viewers thrilled and enthralled for days, months or even years. Think of the impact your favourite books, TV shows or films have over you! They can also be very powerful at creating empathy, and helping people to understand issues such as inequality or racism. Stories educate, engage and help you connect with characters or people you may not otherwise sympathise with. Think about a memorable documentary you watched - it’s highly likely that it educated you through stories.

In this capacity, storytelling is a really powerful tool for activism and social change. As youth advocates and changemakers, we can frame our campaigns as stories to attract the attention of our audience; this is far more likely to succeed than bombarding people with statistics. As a species we’ve used stories for millenia to instill moral values and preserve our cultures. If you consider the greatest examples of activism in history - Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, for example - you will find stories everywhere. MLK’s dream was his vision, his hopes, his imagined future. It all comes back to people, and the key to people is emotion.

My final point is this; everyone is a storyteller. We are all part of creating and telling stories, from the moment we are born to the moment we pass away. We are part of the story of humanity, the stories of our communities and the stories of our generations. The dictionary defines a story as “a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events.” But we know they are so much more! They are our lives; our legacies, our relationships, our connections with others. We are all natural storytellers, and contribute to humanity’s great narrative in this simple way - by connecting to others. By telling our stories.

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American proverb