Emotional Storytelling Is The Only Chance We Have To Change People's Hearts & Minds

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two people talking, trying to change each other's minds

People generally don’t change their minds.

We’re evolutionarily wired to be right. If our ancestors were challenged over a vital issue related to food or survival, then they were likely to find themselves in a tricky spot with the rest of the group. Being seen as having the answers is a move toward dominance that establishes control. 

And everybody could use a little more control these days. 

Politics has become a nightmare scape of yelling and unfriending, where once-valued relationships go to die. Even worse, everything is political — no subject is free from sinking into the same mess of verbal assault and hyperbolic rage. Is it any wonder that more people are taking sides and refusing to budge? 

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How do people change their minds? 

Even those who are sworn to follow the evidence alone have been caught up in taking sides irrationally. Scientists aren’t immune. Sometimes they’re swayed by the evidence, and sometimes they defend positions that go against the evidence. 

Because facts and data aren’t what ultimately change people’s minds. 

Do you ever notice how candidates on the campaign trail will stop their stump speech to bring up a story about a random person you’ve never heard of? They’ll tell you about Barbara Smith and her three kids, and the circumstances she’s dealing with that are hurting her chances of leading a fulfilling life, and that just so happen to align with the goals of a particular political platform. 

“A vote for me is a vote for Barbara!” 

The fact that this is a normal oratory strategy isn’t just random chance. It happens because humans are natural storytellers. We’re physiologically designed to tell and respond to stories. 

That's because people can change their minds when they're emotionally captivated during a story.

People communicate through storytelling

For the majority of human history, information was passed along through word of mouth. Stories became the leading method of communicating information and offering explanations about the world at large. Religion and mythology are steeped in storytelling, but so are more mundane aspects of human life, like the weather. 

“It’s raining today and I forgot my umbrella at home.” Maybe someone mentioned this at the bus stop, while they stood before you, drenched and deflated. This is a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The ending is the image you have of the person telling the tale, and the current state that they’re in. 

You feel for this person, the same way you feel for Barbara and her three children. 

In a recent interview about their new book, Brené Brown and Tarana Burke discussed the power of storytelling to communicate experiences that someone might never have had. Their book, “You Are Your Best Thing,” is a collection of essays from Black writers that aims to effectively cover the Black experience in America. 

The truth is that people believe what they experience. The only thing they understand is what they see and hear for themselves. Storytelling is a magical tool to bypass these fixed circuit boards of our brains, allowing individuals to step outside of themselves. 

By curating emotion-rich experiences and bringing them to their readers, Brown and Burke are looking to provide those without the direct knowledge of Black American struggles a gut punch that sterile facts and figures can’t impart. 

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The same is true of other media. Competition shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” play intro clips of contestants that dive into their lives, their backgrounds, their hopes and dreams. You’re told their stories so that you’ll begin to forge an emotional connection with these strangers. Instead of voting for random singers that you don’t know, you’re rooting for people you know you could be friends with if you’d met in a bar. 

The entire industry of marketing was built under the assumption that more people would buy things if companies could relate more to their target audience. You are not buying a blender, you are buying a lifelong friendship with customer support. You are engaging in a life of healthful living and wellness. This is not only an under-the-desk pedal machine. It is an instrument to transform your fitness. 

Stories appeal to our brain chemistry

When we hear stressful stories, our brains respond by releasing the same chemicals they would if we were in actual distress. Likewise, empathetic tales cause us to release chemicals that make us more connected to people in our physical presence. Stories that can accomplish both of these things are the ones that tend to go viral, sell more products, or sway potential voters. 

Appealing to emotions through stories is the only real way to change someone’s mind. You’ll notice that when you argue with someone who’s particularly stuck in their ways, they’ll sometimes become overly emotional. 

That’s not an uncommon reaction, especially when discussing particularly heated topics. Storytelling isn’t just a communication device. We tell ourselves stories, too. The process is so ingrained in human behavior that we use it to build our own identities. There’s a whole story behind the way you vote, whether you shop organic, or how you choose to raise your children. 

The whole gamut of human interaction and cognitive behavior is submerged in the tradition of storytelling. Not all of it is positive. Justification, enabling, projection — these are all reactions built upon stories. 

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We use them because we’re wired to, and we use them for everything from small talk, to disagreements with our partners, to campaign speeches. They bring us together, set us apart, and reveal our history. If you ever want to know someone better, ask them to tell you their story. If everyone had the patience to sit and listen for just a short while, then much of our bickering would likely fade away. 

From Homer’s “wine-dark sea” to Donald Trump’s “build the wall,” stories have ever been a part of our universal discourse. Even this article is a story — a story to showcase the power of stories. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

We all have the ability to tell stories. Maybe we can use the power of storytelling to change our lives and the world around us for the better. 

Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.

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