Make Story a Priority

The privileged status of story.

Important Message

Our minds prefer to prioritize stories more highly than they do communication in other forms of information, like lists and figures.

University of Virginia Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham has referred to stories as “psychologically privileged.”

He writes, “Research from the last 30 years shows that stories are indeed special. Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember.”

Effective Stories Pique Our Curiosity

Research shows that there is a “Goldilocks” aspect regarding the level of causality that makes a story grab our attention. Not too obvious, not too unclear. Willingham continues, “Story structure naturally leads the listener to make inferences that are neither terribly easy, nor impossibly difficult. New information that is a little bit puzzling, but which we can understand, is deemed more interesting than new information that is either very easy or very difficult to understand.”

Artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank describes this Goldilocks curiosity effect: “Stories illustrate points better than simply stating the points themselves because, if a story is good enough, you usually don’t have to state your point at all; the hearer thinks about what you have said and figures out the point independently. The more work the hearer does, the more he or she will get out of the story.”

Our Brains Index Memories as Stories

In a 1994 study by Dr. Art Graesser of the University of Memphis, people were asked to listen to information presented in story form or in explanatory style. 35 minutes later, their memory was tested. When results were compared, the researchers found that people remembered about 50 percent more from the stories than from the explanatory passages.

We don’t fully understand why stories are easier to remember than lists, but Roger Schank explains that our brains index every bit of information and every experience we have in story format. It makes sense that offering information already in the story structure would make it easier for the mind to index. Schank says that our memories, our narratives, and our intelligence are interrelated. The ability to recall the right story at the right time requires “a massively indexed memory” and is a hallmark of intelligence, believes Schank.

Make Stories a Priority in Your Business Communication

Are you leveraging the mind’s preference for stories in your own professional communication?

Think of your next presentation or important conversation. Would a story be more informative and meaningful?

Think of your plans for your next sales call. Would a story be more influential?

Think of your #1 current marketing message. Would a story be more memorable and engaging?






Willingham, Daniel. American Federation of Teachers, “The Privileged Status of Story.” Summer 2004 issue.

Graesser, A. C., Singer, M., Trabasso, T. (1994). Constructing Inferences During Narrative Text Comprehension. Psychological Review, 101, 371–395.

Tell Me a Story:  A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory by Roger C. Schank, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (1990) pages 11-12.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Denker, Creative Commons License via Flickr

Posted in Communication, Marketing, Sales, Story
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