I learned the power of stories in an unusual place: 6,000 feet up in the highlands of the South Pacific island of New Guinea.
I’ll readily admit that it’s an unexpected place to learn that lesson, especially for someone who majored in English literature in college and made the study of stories an extended academic pursuit.
But locals call Papua New Guinea “the land of the unexpected.” And in this case, it lived up to its reputation for me. I began to see stories as more than the subject of study and for what they are — living and growing things that have unique power to educate, inform, inspire and bond us together.
It’s a lesson many in the world of business know already. Steve Jobs forged Apple’s money-spinning innovation juggernaut, which posted the largest quarterly profit of any company in history at the end of 2014, around its story as a company that through failure and success would continue to “think different.” Yet somehow storytelling remains a corporate learning tool only occasionally used.
I ended up in Papua New Guinea, universally known as PNG to locals and expats, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1990s. As part of training for my two-year gig as an English teacher, I spent a month living with a middle-aged farmer, his wife and their young daughter. They became my new mother, father and sister and I, at six-foot plus, their oversized adopted son.
On the first night of my “homestay,” with next to no ability to speak the language and nothing but the crackling fire to distract us that I was sat down and told to “stori.”
Stori, or telling stories, is central to PNG tradition. In a country where people believe the spirits of their ancestors remain present in the world around them, stories are a way to carry on the memory of those who have passed. They are a critical way to inform, educate and pass along traditions, beliefs and culture.
Every night, stori time was an intensive class in the language and culture of PNG. It was also a vivid example of stories’ ability to create empathy, cement bonds and find common ground. Through stories, a 22-year-old newly minted college graduate from the Midwest formed a bond with a family on the other side of the world.
While the circumstances of our stories couldn’t have been more different, the themes were the same: laughter and pain, elation and frustration. Through our stories, we came to see each other as people who were really much the same.
That feeling of empathy is an intense one whether it’s forged in a village hut or a virtual hall. It’s also a scientifically proven fact that stories play a pivotal role in creating it.
Using fMRI machines, researchers from Princeton University were able to show that when people listen to a recording of someone telling a story, the listeners’ brain activity closely mirrors that of the storyteller. Through the power of story, the brains of storytellers and listeners “coupled.” The greater that connection, researchers showed, the stronger the understanding between them.
The power of stories is nothing new in learning. Executives and business veterans often tell stories about their experiences and the hard-won lessons they learned along the way. Stories are an indispensable and unrivaled tool for building corporate culture and making values clear.
Yet despite their power and longevity, stories remain underused. Virtual and just-in-time learning have made the personal connection that powers stories more distant. But the same technology also opens up new possibilities for storytelling.
Short, engaging videos show how storytelling can reach audiences that would have been unimaginable before. Social media like Twitter and Facebook are flexible and scalable platforms to tell stories about ourselves and others.
Done right, technology offers us a way to extend the power of one of our oldest and most powerful learning tools. But how I learned that lesson is a story for another time.Filed under: Learning Delivery