Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Power of Storytelling

Words hold such power. Think about it. A single word, a phrase. They have the ability to evoke or change emotion, to transport us, to entirely alter our perceptions. But there's something special about the spoken word that leverages the power of story. A good story when told by a talented speaker captivates. It can move us as almost nothing else can.

My brothers and I were lucky to have parents who read to us and quite happily, to others. I still remember my mom reading Where the Red Fern Grows to her elementary school classes. Do you know the book? It's about a country boy named Billy and his coonhounds, Ann and Old Dan. Reading this story was a ritual for my mother as the school year drew to a close, and one she and her students loved equally. She was a music teacher and has a beautiful alto voice. 

The kids would sit and listen for part of each music class, perfectly still as the story progressed day after day, until my mom would break down in tears and be unable to finish. (If you've read Where the Red Fern Grows, you'll know exactly the point in the book I'm talking about.) The kids would be in tears, too, but there was always one student who would pick up that book and bravely carry on, letting my mother weep with the rest of the students.

I'd forgotten these memories and how powerful verbal storytelling is until I spoke to several classes of junior high kids a few weeks ago. The librarian invited me to talk about the writing process, from idea generation all the way through to book production and marketing. Some students were really interested and asked thoughtful and sometimes clever questions. Others goofed off. Some slept. Most were enthusiastic when talking about their favorite book or movie.

They were typical teenagers in full hormonal bloom, and fifty minutes was far too long a time to expect them to sit still. So when the first class erupted into outright fidget mode, I asked if they'd like to hear me read from my books. They provided a loudly unanimous, "Yes, Mrs. Woods!".

Cool. Very cool (even if Mrs. Woods is my mother). But then terror struck and I wondered whether this was such a smart thing: is there any tougher audience than a group of restless and bored 12 and 13 year olds?

You know the amazing thing? All fidgeting ceased as soon as I started to read. The kids leaned forward and paid attention. Those who were asleep even woke up. I'd like to think it was the quality of my story or the entrancing lilt of my voice that captivated them, but I think the reason is far more basic.

There's something primal in story time. Something that connects all of us to each other and to a wider experience. Hearing a story takes us back to the days of triumphant hunting scenes painted on cave walls, or to the Middle Ages when troubadours traveled from village to village singing the news and telling stories of heroism and romance through song. Why are stories so powerful?

Storytelling engages both sides of the brain, the intensely logical left side for dealing with language and comprehension, and the creative right side for processing metaphor and 'seeing' the story. But they also affect the chemistry of the brain. Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has researched the way that people respond to stories, trying to understand the power of their impact. He found that even the simplest story can trigger the release of cortisol - a hormone that causes the 'fight or flight' response - or the release of the love hormone, oxycotin.

The meaning of all this? There's powerful, heady stuff in storytelling.

While these effects occur for stories in both written and verbal form, there's something unique about a story shared through the voice. I've toyed with the idea of recording my books, and have dipped in and out of Stephen Woodfin's blog series on Venture Galleries regarding how to create audiobooks. But after my experience with the junior high kids and being reminded of the power of the spoken story, I'll be going back to re-read his advice, taking it a little more seriously this time.

photo credit: E>mar via photopin cc
photo credit: kidicarus222 via photopin cc
photo credit: Gruban via photopin cc

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