[This is part of our series on Public Speaking in the Church] Don’t get me started on the amazing power of stories. Seriously, don’t. There’s no way I could possibly put into words how much I love stories and how powerful they are within the confines of one blog post.
Oh well, if you insist, let me try.
Once upon a time…I’ve always loved stories. My mom was a storyteller and I have fond memories of her sharing stories from the Bible, books, fairy tales, or her own made up ones. As a teen, I started writing stories as well and I never stopped.
Wired for Story
There’s something magical about stories, both writing and reading them, because they have the unique ability to transport you to a different place and time. This is called emotional transportation and we all know how real this is. I mean, I’ve cried after finishing great books or TV series or movies because I didn’t want to leave that fictional world.
Hogwarts for instance. Or Middle Earth. The Star wars galaxy. Dawson’s Creek. (Yes, I know—I’m such a girl!)
Our brains are wired for stories; it’s how God made us. That’s not just a romantic observation, but a scientific fact. Researchers have discovered that we listen differently to stories than to ‘information’: we listen better, deeper, remember more, and experience powerful emotions. Listening to a story about someone surviving on the North Pole for instance can make us shiver in 90-degree weather and just thinking about lemons makes us salivate more.
People listen better when you tell stories and they remember more—those two reasons alone should be enough for any speaker to add a healthy amount of stories to their talks. After all, it’s hard to keep audience’s attention and we all have been frustrated with how little people seemed to remember from our rather brilliant talks, right?
There’s another reason to use stories however, and to me this is the most important one. Yes, we want our audience to listen and of course we want them to remember what we said. But in the church, our ultimate goal is not information. We don’t teach towards a test, a degree, or a proof of knowledge. Our goal is transformation, not information.
Transformation implies that what we teach on, what we share impacts our listeners such, that it changes their lives. This can be a big, bold turnaround or can happen in tiny little increments over time. Lives transformed so people resemble Jesus Christ more, that’s our ultimate goal.
The problem, however, is that information doesn’t change people’s lives. Well, it helps, but it’s not what motivates people towards big changes. Every year in December or so, People Magazine has an issue where they highlight folks who have lost a lot of weight the last year. When you read these interviews to see what triggered the change in behavior, it’s never information. These people knew they were overweight, they knew they were having health issues. Still, that didn’t change their behavior.
The trigger is always something emotional. One woman described not fitting into a plane seat anymore. Another said her daughter was ashamed to bring friends home. A man told the reporter that he’d lost his job because he couldn’t function properly anymore. None of these are pure facts—each of these events triggered powerful emotions that in turn, propelled these people into change.
The Emotional Brain
Change is triggered primarily by emotions. This is called the ‘emotional brain’, as opposed the ‘intellectual brain’. As it turns out, we make many decisions with our emotional brain, even if we don’t realize it. That’s why something can ‘feel right’-and we try to come up with rational arguments to justify our choice.
Clearly, this way of making decisions has pros and cons. One can certainly argue that doing what feels right can lead you on some dangerous paths, at least Biblically speaking. But there’s no sense in judging this decision making process; it’s how we’re wired.
What does this have to do with stories, you may wonder. Here’s the thing: stories appeal to that emotional brain and bypass the intellectual brain. If we teach information and present it in a logical, intellectual way, it will; be processed by the intellectual brain. That means listeners will dissect it, judge it, take it apart to look for faults in your line of reasoning or your facts—and they’ll respond in a rational way: by formulating counterarguments.
However, if we present that same ‘information’ in a story, we bypass that intellectual brain and people will lower their ‘defense mechanism’. It’s one reason why testimonies are so touching and powerful, because these stories hit us straight in our emotional gut.
This means that stories are incredibly powerful in triggering change, transformation. It also means that it’s fairly easy to manipulate emotions and let’s be honest: we are guilty of this at times in the church. Music can be a powerful tool here for instance: an emotional plea combined with a soft emotional piece of music in the background, who can say no? Or the scene I once witnessed myself: scenes from ‘The Passion’ shown with a song called ‘How can you refuse Him now?’. This is how altar calls can get a big response…but how much of it is real?
Emotions are not something to play with. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Bible warns us that teachers have such a great responsibility. Yes, we need access to people’s emotions to get them to make transformational changes—but we need to do it with the Spirit of Christ in mind. It’s the Holy Spirit who has to bring the real change, through us. We are the vessels, but it’s His work.
It’s one of the reasons why stories are so effective in triggering emotions: because they are real (assuming you use real life stories and not fictional ones). A while ago I shared a story with my middle schoolers about how my son accidentally skied off a slope when he was 4 and forgot how to brake. I caught him at the bottom, in a desperate attempt to keep him from slamming into the safety net. Afterwards, he told me he hadn’t been really scared once he saw me standing there, because he’d knew I’d catch him.
Obviously, I shared this story with a lot more details than I just did here (including how incredibly scared I was that I wouldn’t be able to hold him and how bruised I was the day after from getting both of his skies in my feet…) and the emotion I stressed was trust. My son’s endless trust in me was a picture of the trust God wants us to have in Him. The students were captivated by the story and they were also emotional. It opened their hearts to the truth that we can trust God, that He will always catch us. Now, if I had simply shared the verse to ‘Trust the Lord with all your heart…” and taught a theoretical theological message, it would have never had the same impact.
Read More on Stories
I’m close to 1,200 words in this post and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet of why stories are so amazing and why they are such a powerful tool in talks. So let me close off by sharing some great resources on this topic:
May I be so bold as to mention my own book Storify first? It’s all about the power of story and how to harness this to reach audiences with the Gospel. It’s focused on youth ministry, but you can apply these same principles to the church as a whole.
Garmine Gallo has written a book on the power of stories, called The Storyteller’s Secret. Check out our review here.
And don’t forget to check out these previous ChurchMag Posts on stories and storytelling:
- The Power of Story [Video]
- Pixar’s Golden Rules for Storytelling (in LEGO)
- Storytelling on Steroids
- How to write a good story
In the next post, I’ll offer some suggestions on how and when to use stories in your talks.