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Storytelling: everything and nothing has changed

Al MacCuish reflects on the art of storytelling, from cave painting to writing and film. Has anything really changed? How is story relevant today?
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Once upon a time, a man or a woman told another one a story, probably about a saber-toothed tiger or a girl they fancied in the next cave, and in doing so, successfully established a behaviour that has come to define human existence. It’s called story. Stories have changed the world over and over again, started wars and ended them, driven civilisation forward in pursuit of progress, happiness, and the quest
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to answer the biggest question of all: who are we and why the hell are we here? From cave paintings to the genius of HBO’s new comedy “Silicon Valley,” we are constantly talking about the world around us, our place in it, and how to navigate it. Story defines us. One of our best screenwriters, Steven Moffat, the man behind the BBC’S “Sherlock” series, sums it up perfectly. “We are all stories, in the end.” And the reason for this isn’t artistic, though. It’s evolutionary. Jonathan Gottschall brilliantly sums it up in his book, “The Storytelling Animal,” proving that science backs up the long held belief that story is by far the most powerful means of communicating a message.
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Stories are as instinctive and intuitive as walking upright or opposable thumbs. We are hardwired to decode the messages that are contained within them. The dictionary definition of story actually contains a vital clue as to why stories are such a powerful means of communication. It very dryly says, story, a noun, a narrative, either true or fictitious designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hero or reader. Stories are designed to deliver messaging in an interesting, amusing, or instructive way. The American Indians, about 150 years ago, worked out a really wonderful way of summing up the power of story to be not just useful, but actually to talk about the emotional value that it has for us.
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Tell me a fact and I’ll learn, tell me a truth and I’ll believe, but tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. And over the centuries, we’ve become spectacularly good at finding increasingly inventive ways to tell stories. From the Bible to “Book of Mormon,” the Greek tragedies to “Mamma Mia,” via every campfire song, poem, play, book, TV show, film advert, and today what we call content, nothing has really changed. For every evolution in the storytelling format, there is an unbroken red thread connecting every one of them. They contain valuable meaning, relevance to the audience, and emotional truth.
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And this is good news for anyone looking to develop the skills to make a career out of storytelling or apply it to their job. When you look at where storytelling is in terms of its history, everything and nothing has changed. Audiences are still looking for meaning, messages that are relevant to them, their hopes, their fears, their lives, and they are looking to stories for them. You already know a lot about story. You already innately understand it as a viewer, a reader, or a member of the audience. And you know a good one from a bad one. There’s a set of basic learnable principles that can help you develop the skills to become a good storyteller yourself.
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These principles can be applied to every single form of communication including advertising. In fact, advertising has been successfully using storytelling for decades. We’ve just been calling it something else. But that, as we say, is another story.
Storytelling – from cave paintings to TV shows – has been a key feature of human interaction for thousands of years.
There’s a good reason for this: scientifically, story is the most powerful way to communicate a message in an interesting, entertaining way. Stories engage our emotions, and this is why they resonate with us and deliver information so effectively, as Al MacCuish explains.
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