Reading Notes: The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Story’s role in human life extends far beyond conventional novels or films. Story, and a variety of storylike activities, dominates human life.

Storytelling is a fundamental drive. It’s a skill that humans have developed to survive. That’s Jonathan Gottschall’s position in The Storytelling Animal. Gottschall is an evolutionary biologist who asks a simple but important question: Why do humans tell stories?

He starts by assuming that storytelling is useful, not frivolous. The argument is that if stories are not helping humans to survive, the practice would have died out. There must be an evolutionary reason to keep telling stories.

One reason is that storytelling informs a group of people and offers virtual practice or real-life situations. A story, whether truth or fiction, is about a situation and an individual, how the individual acted in a situation, and what the consequences were. Stories are a safe space to practice for everyday life.

Another reason humans retain story is to create and preserve identity. Each group, whether it’s a group of friends, an organization, a nation, or a culture, has a foundation story and a set of myths that help to explain their perspective on the world.

Gottschall points out that “The world’s priests and shamans knew what psychology would later confirm: if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.” Stories stick and they stick far better than lessons told in the abstract. There’s a reason we can remember fairy tales from childhood but that recalling the details of a lecture delivered with text laden PowerPoint is difficult to retain.

Over time, story’s format has changed, from oral storytelling to novels to digital storytelling. While the mechanisms of delivery have changed, what Gottschall calls the universal grammar of story has not. The way we tell stories has changed, but the essence of the stories we tell has not.

The role stories play in our lives has expanded, though. Particularly in digital storytelling, think websites or podcasts or role-playing games, story has become a way to escape from a mundane reality. The stories that we use for entertainment these days seem to blur the lines between fiction and reality more every day. The same trend is present in knowledge transfer as stories become a common modus for relating data and facts. The distinction between story and fact is blurring as well.

What’s the take away from The Storytelling Animal for the storyteller? Humans need story. Audiences are receptive to your story because they have evolved to learn from stories. Shape your message into a story and your audience transforms into vessels eager to receive your story.

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