The Power of Story

After 50 years, Harper Lee is publishing a new book. Her second book. Ever. You might have heard of her first one… "To Kill a Mockingbird". The news hit and the reading world immediately erupted into cheers. Think about that for a moment. 50 years between books!

Today, I heard former soldier and writer, David J. Morris, on the NPR show “Think” talking about the healing power of novels for soldiers recovering from PTSD.

Why do I share these two stories with you? Too often the power of stories is dismissed. We think that “real experiences” matter most. Stories are considered an “escape” or worse yet, a waste of time.

If this is true:

  • Why does “To Kill a Mockingbird” move us?
  • Why are people cheering the release of a 50 year old book about some kid named Scout?
  • How does a novel have the power to heal trauma?

Despite what you might have heard, our brains are not just sophisticated computers. We don’t just process information that comes in through our eyes or nose or fingers. Our minds are much more complicated than that.

  • On the “Invisibilia” podcast they interviewed a woman with Synesthesia. People with Synesthesia might see smells as colors or, as in the case of this woman, they might feel a hug given to someone else or feel the sensation of food being pushed into their own mouth when someone else is eating.
  • On “Fresh Air” Terry Gross interviewed neuroscientist Frances Jensen who talked about the vulnerability of teens to addiction… because addiction is “learned”

Our brains “learn” from all kinds of input. What we experience happens inside our brains. Not on our fingers, in our noses or eyes. What we see in the world imprints a memory. We see a tall, leafed and barked plant and know its a tree. In the same way, your brain is learning and creating memory when you immerse yourself in a story. It allows you to experience the emotions, place, the events in the same way you do your own life.

We have all lived a version of Scout’s story. When a soldier reads the Odyssey he experiences the adventure, pain and restoration of Odysseus. He learns from Odysseus’ story, how to process his own pain and experiences and find his own redemption.

Brain scans taken while experiencing a story show that they activate the same areas of the brain as memories. Stories are as real to us as that time we tripped in the hall in front of the whole school and our fist kiss.

When we are subjected to emotional manipulation (Nationwide SuperBowl ad anyone?) we are justifiably mad.


When respect for the audience and its experience is not taken into account your pay off is an enraged audience no matter how valuable the message.

The beauty of a truly powerful story (be it a novel, an ad, a blog, a commercial, or a news story) is that we, the audience, choose to follow the teller down the path. We get furious when manipulated, but we also we rejoice when we experience a story that gives us something of value in return. 

Yes, stories like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Odyssey" but also other stories.

The Coca Cola ad telling a story of on-line bullying transformed.

The Always ad urging us to keep #likeagirl awesome.

They also deliver powerful stories.

Stories that when told by a brand leave us with a “feel good” directed toward the brand that dared to tell them. These moments are real. It’s important that the stories we tell, enrich and empower… because they aren’t just stories. Use your power wisely.