Why Are Stories Such Powerful Means of Communication?

The first time I ever spoke at a student retreat, I asked my dad for some speaking advice. He said, “Son, I have three words of advice for you: stories, stories, stories.” In other words, if you want to be an effective communicator, tell stories. Now that I have been a public speaker for over two decades, I can see the wisdom in his suggestions with even greater clarity.

People remember stories and relate to them. Jesus is remembered partly because he told remarkable stories such as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20). People have always loved stories. And they always will. As I wrote in a previous post, human beings are “storytelling animals.”

But have you ever wondered what it is about stories that makes them so impactful? Why do we enjoy a good story from a friend?  Why do we love movies so much? In his excellent book Marching Off the Map, student culture expert Tim Elmore offers some fascinating insights from neuroscience:

Part of the answer, at least, is because our brains become more active when hearing a story. Consider what it feels like to listen to a presentation, where the speaker uses boring PowerPoint slides with lists of bullet points. No doubt, it can engage certain part of our brain. The visual aid helps, but the data listed on the screen is limited in how much it harnesses our minds.

When we hear a story, however, things dramatically shift inside us, according to researchers in Europe. Not only are the language processing portions of our brain activated, but any other portion we’d use when experiencing the events of that story are as well. If we hear about the sweltering heat of a summer day, the preoptic areas of the anterior hypothalamus portion of our brain lights up. If a person tells us how delicious their lasagna was last night, our sensory cortex lights up. When a friend describes how fast he was running on a track last week, our motor cortex is ignited. In other words, the better the storyteller, the more portions of the brain are engaged. It can be far superior to relaying mere facts. In many cases, the listeners actually feel as if they are experiencing the story itself. It is an experience.

Simply put, a story can put your whole brain to work.[1]

Yes! God has physically wired our brains to respond to narratives. We feel, experience, and sometimes even taste certain aspects of a story. That’s why stories are such powerful means of persuasion.

So, if you want to genuinely influence people, don’t give mere facts and data, tell good stories. Want to be a good parent? Tell your kids meaningful stories. Want to be a good salesman? Tell powerful stories. Want to be a good speaker? Tell good stories. In fact, for anyone who wants to make a real difference in life, allow me to close with three words of advice: stories, stories, stories.

[1] Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak, Marching off the Map (Atlanta, GA: Poet Gardner Publishing, 2017), 141-142.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.


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