Story : A Code ; The Science & Art of Storytelling

Jasravee Kaur Chandra

1.Ma, tell me a story

Thats how it starts, right ? A little child is being to put to sleep on her bed. She refuses to sleep unless she gets her daily diet of a story.

The mother or the grandmother then narrates a story, of a king or a queen in a faraway land, or a neighbourly Winnie the Pooh. The story spurs the child’s imagination, fills her eyes with wonder (and sleep). Next night the child wants to know what happened to the innocent princess, the vile step-mother or the hungry Pooh !

Many a bed time stories have calmed us and put us to sleep, even while stirring our subconscious. They have not just entertained us but also nurtured a rich alternate world.

So far, so good. Wonder whether the story plays a larger role than this? Let’s explore together.

2. Hey, its not just a story ..!! 

In order to explore further, I thought that it will be worthwhile to recollect a story that impacted me deeply. 

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Stark memories of ‘Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte’ surfaced. I read the original classic in class five, when I was ten years old. We had just moved cities. From the Hindi speaking city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh to the Punjabi heartland city of Ludhiana. This was after our plywood manufacturing business in Kanpur was burnt to ashes in the 1984 communal riots.

It was a huge change of culture and environment. I had to navigate the new, and often strange environment with the support of, zero friends! No wonder, I befriended Jane Eyre rather quickly. Coincidentally her story also started when she is 10 years old. Jane Eyre’s plain looks, uncompromising intelligence, fierce yet gentle independence became characteristics that I began to appreciate. I was impressed by her unwavering focus on picking up skills. Her courage to explore and to seek her true self appeared pretty fascinating.Her practices of contented long walks, enjoyment of her solitude and high self-awareness struck a chord with me. 

I started enjoying long walks by myself. The need to know my mind became very important to me. Till many years later I was happy and content at considering myself a plain Jane ! And all I sought was to become skilled and feel a sense of accomplishment. 

Jane Eyre was a story I read in a book. But she appeared more real to my 10 year old self than any real kids in the neighbourhood. Looking back I can say Jane Eyre, and her story not only captured my imagination but also started influencing my desires and choices. 

How did this happen ? 

3. Story and our brain

In our regular conversations we compare our brain’s functioning with that of a computer. Most middle class Indians of my generation have devoured Chacha Choudhary* comics and are aware of his superpower – that his brain functions faster than a computer !

Our brain generally speaking is considered a poor cousin to a computer ! But recent research has shown that it is not so ! To quote Christian Jarrett from his book ‘Great Myths of the Brain’

“Although there are some similarities (both receive information, process it, respond with outputs; both store information in two ways—as short term/quick retrieval and long- term/slower retrieval memory), brains and computers work in quite different ways”

How does our brain work differently ?

a) The brain takes short cuts. It does that by zeroing in on one piece of information and ignoring pretty much everything else. 

Our conscious attention is severely limited because of the cognitive load on hand. As a result we use simple shortcuts to arrive at a best guess of the objective reality in front of us. Not only is our attention limited, we also avoid thinking deeply about a problem. According to Daniel Kahnenan , who writes in his book ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’ 

“All things being equal we like to go by the law of least mental effort. Our default mode is automatic mode where thinking is low” 

Decision-making is computationally taxing in terms of cognitive load. So the brain has developed ways to arrive at choices in a time-efficient manner. The human brain is very good at filtering information and only processes a portion of incoming sensory information. 

Cognitive mechanisms underlying our choices are no different than sensory processes; the brain sifts through information….only using a fraction of what is seen, heard, felt, or smelled to reach a decision.* 

This is how our brain saves time and energy and increases speed of response.

– Matthew Wilcox, Business of Choice 

b) Our brain prefers a narrative !

Try it ! Take 11 words and numbers to memorize. And compare it with memorizing by weaving them into a story. Which one do you think brain will process or make sense of better ?

“People remember information when it is weaved into narratives ‘up to 22 times more’ than facts alone.”

Jennifer Aaker, Marketing Professor at Stanford GSB

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Our brain prefers a narrative, that gives a context or meaning to unrelated objects, words & numbers. This makes it easier for our brain to process it.In other words our brain is not just seeing an objective reality – the objects in front of us – but is influenced by our subjective reality. The subjective reality can be interpreted as our beliefs, biases etc. in our sub-conscious. 

Our brains are pattern seeking machines. We are evaluating and learning the patterns in our environment. Over a lifetime we have internalised many such patterns. These patterns provide a context to objects, words or numbers . They influence the narrative.

Our conscious brain receives stimuli that our unconscious brain processes and gives meaning to, which becomes a story. So a story is, in effect, a sense making devise. 

A human brain is unlike a rationally evaluating computer . The human brain makes choices that are non-conscious or intuitive. It is now accepted by most experts that the role of rational thinking is largely for post-rationalisation. 

Besides, the choice our brain makes depends on context. A story provides a ready reference, a context for enabling choices.

4. Brands and Story

How does this apply to brands. 

Branding guru David Aaker talks about applying stories to brands in his book “Creating Signature Stories. According to David Aaker, the top reasons stories work are as follows

  • Stories are way superior to facts in gaining exposure, activating social media, communicating information, being remembered, creating involvement, persuading, inspiring and more.
  • Stories break through media clutter as they can be engaging content
  • Stories are perceived to be more authentic and credible than a bunch of facts; which can be construed by consumers as an attempt to hard-sell. 

5. Story a CODE 

Now that we are finally figuring how our brain functions, we are realising our brain needs a story or a narrative to make sense of things. It’s what breaks through the immense clutter of facts/information.

Actually what makes us humans unique, itself, is a story. Its a human who wants to view things as cause-effect, and wants to build a narrative that connects past-present-future.* (Troy Campbell in Jagged With Jasravee Podcast)

As far as me and Jane Eyre go, I think her story became a context for me to interpret my life circumstance. Maybe also affirmed some existing patterns. And somewhere started influencing my own personal narrative.

We know a story, does not have to be an entire book or a movie. It can be told in 3 sentences, a visual, a meme, even a print ad. 

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We need to delve deeper into the art and science of telling a story. Because a story is a human code.

This is first in a series of articles by Jasravee Kaur Chandra on the codes of communication.

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