Stories: the low-tech mind meld

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If you think about your own experience, I think you can see how a good story deserves the metaphorical label of “mind meld.” I remember being enthralled as I listened to Appalachian storytellers at the Museum of Appalachia’s Fall Homecoming, as I read my first novel that a teacher didn’t assign (it was Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein), and as I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know that power on the receiving end, and (I hope) have experienced it on the other end.

Science suggests it may be more than metaphor, though. As I read recently in Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, fMRI scans of the brains of storytellers and listeners show that the speaker and the audience members have the same areas of the brain “firing” at the same time during the telling of a story.

No doubt there is a skill to storytelling. The studies mentioned didn’t try to track what happens when a speaker tells a story ineffectively, but they did examine the correlation of brains of those listening to a story told in an unfamiliar language. Unsurprisingly, there was zero correlation (but it was worth checking in case the correlation came mostly from responses to voice and body language).

Much of that correlative firing of neurons happens in brain areas tied to emotion and experience. This is important. As we have established before, people make decisions based on emotion, then justify decisions based on logic. You have to have both, but our culture pushes us toward facts and figures and charts to the neglect of supporting material that will move people to take action, like stories.

Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talks have a combined viewership as of this writing of nearly 40 million, achieves much of his impact through well-chosen stories. His latest, How to Escape Education’s Death Valley, lays out solid concepts in a clear structure, but ultimately concludes with a real-life story from 2004. In his own words:

Not far from where I live is a place called Death Valley. Death Valley is the hottest, driest place in America, and nothing grows there. Nothing grows there because it doesn’t rain. Hence, Death Valley. In the winter of 2004, it rained in Death Valley. Seven inches of rain fell over a very short period. And in the spring of 2005, there was a phenomenon. The whole floor of Death Valley was carpeted in flowers for a while. What it proved is this: that Death Valley isn’t dead. It’s dormant. Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility waiting for the right conditions to come about, and with organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. It happens all the time.

He uses that story to hold out hope for our education system, hope that change can happen suddenly when the conditions are right.

The real role of leadership in education — and I think it’s true at the national level, the state level, at the school level — is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected.

If you want to change the world (and the only reason for speaking is to change the world, however incrementally), change the big picture, you do that most effectively by getting into the emotional specifics of a story. It’s the literal power of the mind meld. And you don’t have to be a green-blooded half-alien to achieve it!

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.