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The Power of Storytelling: Q&A with Jonathan Gottschall

Dr. Jonathan Gottschall

By Holger Volland

Good stories are the main ingredient of almost all media. But stories also play a vital role in the evolution of society. At the StoryDrive China Conference in Beijing on May 29th, this will be discussed in depth with international experts. We asked one of the keynote speakers and storytelling expert, Dr. Jonathan Gottschall, about why storytelling is so important.

Jonathan Gottschall writes books about the intersection of science and art. He is one of the leading figures in a new movement that is trying to bridge the humanities-sciences divide. His most recent book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology and biology to show how storytelling has evolved to ensure our species’ survival. Dr. Gottschall teaches in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. Hear him speak at the StoryDrive China 2013 conference in Beijing on May 29th.

PP: Why do we value Storytelling so much in our society?

Gottschall: Human beings are storytelling animals. We live in stories all day long. We dream in stories all night long. Stories are how we learn and how we think; they are how we communicate and connect. When we meet a friend for a drink — or a stranger on a plane — our interaction mainly consists of trading personal stories back and forth. Storytelling is a key competence because it’s the most powerful method we know of riveting the attention of others and of connecting with them emotionally.

A story is clearly the heart of every fictional book. But in which way is storytelling important for non-fiction?

Good storytelling is critical for all forms of non-fiction. Take, for example, popular science writing. It needs to be fact rich, and the facts have to be accurate. But if the author isn’t skilled at weaving the facts into a compelling narrative, he or she is doomed. Malcolm Gladwell succeeds, for instance, not because of the quality of his facts (you’d find better facts in the actual scientific research he draws upon), but for the masterful way he builds gripping human dramas around those facts. Some people see “story” as somehow being opposed to a fact-based narrative. But the best communicators realize that story is an essential vehicle for the delivery of facts.

Are there cultural differences in the ways people tell a story? Or is it just the narrative itself that change?

There are differences, of course. The swaggering heroes of Homer’s Iliad would wreak havoc in the urbane drawing rooms of a Jane Austen novel. But dig down past the cultural differences and you find something truly amazing: stories — from the great Western classics to the great Chinese classics, from African folk tales to modern TV programs — always have the same basic preoccupations and the same underlying structure (I call it story’s “universal grammar”). This is potent evidence that what unites us across continents and cultures is much stronger than what divides us.

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