Emotion, memory and stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 3, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Do you remember where you were when you first saw the those two jumbo jets plunge into the World Trade Center? How well do you remember what you were doing when you saw it? Can you remember the room you were in, the people in the room with you, what you said, what you thought?

When strong emotions surge through us our bodies respond by pumping adrenalin into our blood stream. In addition to preparing us to run or fight, adrenalin enhances our memories of what was happening when the emotion hit. This biological response was probably a very good feature of our species in times past because you want to remember exactly where that T-rex, that scared the bejesus out of you, hangs out.

Stories create emotions too and therefore there’s no surprise that we remember the best stories, they ones that touch our hearts, make us laugh or even just create a feeling of puzzlement.

Last week I was teaching our storytelling for business leaders workshop to an energy company and I started the day with a Jumpstart Storytelling session. One of the most popular stories was this one which was originally told by a CEO many years ago but remembered clearly by the participant.

In prehistoric times there was this family that lived in a cave. They were very happy in their cave. They led a good life but one day they noticed across the valley another cave that looked pretty good. So after many weeks of discussion they made their mind up to move to the new cave. As they crossed the valley they noticed just how rich the soil was and thought it would be even better to settle there and till the soil. Which they did.

The CEO never explained the story nor mentioned it again, but the discussion it started about what it meant continued for years.

Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman say stories are facts wrapped up in context and delivered with emotion. The three factors are equally important: fact, context, emotion. But emotion is often set aside in a business context and we are only now seeing its inclusion as a legitimate factor to consider.

The relationship between emotion and memory was first brought to me attention in Maxwell and Dickman’s book, The Elements of Persuasion

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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