The Power of Storytelling (and Why It Matters)

Stories have been told for centuries and will continue to inform how we view the world. But it has become a bastardised industry buzzword along with the likes of “disruption”, “turnkey” and “future-proofing”. Why does storytelling matter and why must we utilise it responsibly?

I’ve been asked what is storytelling and why it matters since I founded Zazoozoo.

An attendee I met in one of my workshops asked me, “Zul, I want to tell better stories but I don’t know why.”

Storytelling is not sustenance, it’s not the air we breathe, it’s not a cure for cancer. To me, it’s bigger than that. I train, produce and coach in the landscape of storytelling, but what I’m truly in is the business of creating trust.

But storytelling is not sustenance, it’s not the air we breathe, it’s not a cure for cancer. To me, it’s bigger than that. I’m in the business of creating trust.

My vision is to empower the world to build trust through storytelling. My mission is to develop innovative storytelling solutions for a billion people to build trust. The fissions for these to happen can be found in Zazoozoo.

And my vision—and why I even do this in the first place, why I stubbornly refuse to back down—actually comes from fear.

I fear that our human connection will degrade. It will rot to the point that we forget what it means to be human. We will lose our ability to communicate with conviction and connect with each other’s humanity.

So perhaps this post is a process that will not only enable me to share the power of storytelling but to also come to a conclusion that building trust–how difficult it is to gain and how easy it is to lose–is its life’s blood.


Once upon a time, I walked into a bar

Zul Andra addressing an audience during a panel session.

When I was the Editor-in-chief of Esquire, we had an annual event where we invited hundreds of advertisers to hear what we had planned for the year ahead.

Millions worth of contracts. That was what my boss implied I focus on. Like my job was to pick off dollar bills stapled on the advertisers’ foreheads.

I didn’t really care about the contracts. Any other competitor of Esquire and a travelling salesman with a suitcase can get contracts. Anyone can talk about pricing, anyone can talk about reach, anyone can talk about the next new and shiny thing.

When I went on stage to address the advertisers in a bar, the only question that kept nagging at me was: do they even know why we tell stories the way we do?

So in my cold open, I asked, “What do you think is the oldest form of storytelling?”

One shouted out newspapers, another claimed it was cave paintings. It went on for about a minute of mulling, chin-stroking and the contemplative swirls of a wine glass.

What do you think is the oldest form of storytelling?

“It was the first time that hunters and gatherers, elders and babes, women and men came together,” I said. “The oldest form of storytelling was when mankind found fire.”

In that human ring around the fire, ideas and imagination sparked.

Hunters shared techniques of the kill, gatherers solicited magical herbs and potions, the wise elders warned of the spirit in the mountains and nomads returned to tell tales of new lands and deities that came down from the skies.

Youths from the Agta tribe preparing a fire.

“Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures thus far studied,” Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic.

“It’s also ancient: Some specific stories have roots that stretch back for around 6,000 years. […] Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, some scholars have portrayed storytelling as an important human adaptation.”

Yong concludes: “Among the Agta [a group of hunter-gatherers from the Philippines], a team of anthropologists found evidence that stories—and the very act of storytelling—arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds and instilling an ethic of cooperation.”

On stage, I implored that Esquire is platform-agnostic, that our competitor isn’t another print magazine but giants like FB or IG, and that the magazine industry is suffering at a place that I like to call, LOL.

Today’s competitors can copy your better, faster, cheaper features virtually instantly. The only thing they can’t replicate is the trust that customers feel for you.

Platforms change. It could be the roar of a campfire yesterday or it could be the chirping on Twitter tomorrow. But what matters, and would always matter, is the power of storytelling and with it, empowering human connection.

And that was what Esquire has always been about and we need advertisers’ help for us to continue this challenging task.

“Product differentiation, by itself, has become indefensible because today’s competitors can copy your better, faster, cheaper features virtually instantly,” Andy Raskin, a storytelling consultant, writes.

“Now, the only thing they can’t replicate is the trust that customers feel for you and your team. Ultimately, that’s born […] of a culture whose beating heart is a strategic story that casts your customer as the world-changing hero.”

I don’t know how much potential advertising investment we raked that night, but what I do know is that my publisher didn’t give me stick at the end of it.


Examples of powerful storytelling

How storytelling impacts the world around us is evident in almost every landscape imaginable.

But the power of storytelling is not limited to politics, corporations and academia. Storytelling isn’t for the elite few. To connect as human beings is for all.

Here are examples of the power of storytelling, how it shaped conversations and drove change.


The Banksy effect

How did an anonymous street artist, whose stencil graffiti tells the story of social and political issues and whose works fetch a minimum of six-figures, become a beacon for both movements and museums? The “Banksy effect” describes how his work not only increased the value of street art, but also bolstered tourism and inspired a generation of protest movements–from the Middle East to North Africa. Read the research and a paper on the effect. Picture: Banksy, screenshot from the documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop.


Toms makes you the hero of their story

Toms business model goes something like this: for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair is donated to a person in need. That, in itself, is a brand story. Just like a good story, it highlights an issue–poverty and the underprivileged; it suggests a conflict–not everyone can afford a pair of shoes; and it creates a hero–you. Their One Day Without Shoes initiative in 2016 engaged 3.5 million people in one day. Picture: Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes.


The greatest sales pitch is a well-told story

Drift’s director of marketing, Dave Gerhardt, and CEO, David Cancel, pitched the company’s chat tool in two different events. And according to Andy Raskin, a storytelling consultant, it was the best sales pitch he had ever seen. The company recently raised a $32 million round of Series B capital. Raskin also shared another gold standard storytelling presentation. This one is by Elon Musk. Picture: David Cancel, CEO of Drift.


Popeye’s “powered spinach”

The story goes like this: America was facing the Great Depression; facing meat shortages, the government decided to promote iron-rich spinach and enlisted the help of the swol sailor, Popeye, to market the greens. Whereas in another story, a chemist, misplaced a decimal point to report that spinach contains 35mg of iron in one serving; as opposed to 3.5mg. It has been claimed that Popeye’s creators took this and ran with it. Whichever is true, the beloved sailor man–strong to the finich, cause he eats his spinach–reportedly turned the leafy green into a popular superfood. Picture: Elzie Segar, creator and cartoonist of Popeye.


The rise of a ballerina

At 13, Misty Copeland started her ballet practice at a late age, but in the face of rejection, racism and an ugly custody battle, she rose to prominence. Her story inspired Barack Obama to seek her out as an adviser, drove Prince to invite her on tour and a swell of fans queue up to meet her after performances.Picture: Misty Copeland, from photographer Gregg Delman’s debut pictorial book, Misty Copeland.


“Born In The USA” is not a song that celebrates the country

Bruce Springsteen’s iconic, rousing anthem was once misconstrued as a “grand, cheerful affirmation,” as lauded by the Conservative columnist, George Will. Ronald Reagan even affiliated Springsteen to his, then, presidential campaign. The song was a critical take on the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Picture: Bruce Springsteen.


The stories we tell ourselves

“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness,” says research professor, Brené Brown. Her rousing TED talks on the power of vulnerability and listening to shame have garnered close to 60 million views and changed the way we confront our own humanity. Picture: Brené Brown.


A new old way to tell stories

The crime investigation podcast series, Serial was launched in 2014 and within a month had reached a million listeners. Since its début, the show has been downloaded 240 million times. Serial has been lauded as the gold standard of podcasting. Why? Because its self-absorbing and suspenseful narrative has given life to long-form audio storytelling, inspired imitations and parodies, and of course, gave advertisers a new and powerful way to market their own story. Picture: Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of Serial.


What we can learn from America’s Storyteller-in-Chief

The New York Times credits Barack Obama’s chief White House speechwriter Cody Keenan for his “everyman prose”. Communication coach, Carmine Callo, recommends that all leaders tap into storytelling to motivate. “Stories educate. Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire. Stories connect us to one another and, yet, stories are also vastly under-appreciated in business.” Picture: Cody Keenan and Barack Obama.


How a story is always told

In Randy Olson’s book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, the American scientist-turned-filmmaker defined storytelling as the search for a solution to a problem presented with warmth, humour and emotion.

Whereas a narrative is defined as a “series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.”

According to Olson, Donald Trump is a master narrator but a poor storyteller. Ronald Reagan is the opposite. Olson also compiled some of Trump’s narrative hits.

President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn of the White House.

“Jeb’s a great guy, but he’s weak (PROBLEM), therefore he needs to go home (SOLUTION).”

“We love our Mexican friends, but too many are illegal (PROBLEM), therefore we need to build a wall (SOLUTION).”

“Muslims are mostly okay, but some are terrorists (PROBLEM), therefore we need to stop their entry (SOLUTION).”

“Our country used to be great, but now it’s slipped in the world (PROBLEM), therefore we need to Make America Great Again (SOLUTION).”

Whenever you can replace your ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ or ’therefores’, it makes for a better story.

Using Olson’s Narrative Index–a tool that divides the number of “buts” by the number of “ands” in sentences times 100–you’ll get to quantify your narrative strength. And Trump always hits a high of 20.

So, instead of telling a “and then” type of story, Olson suggests his ABT framework– “and”, “but”, “therefore”–for a better narrative.

The framework was inspired by South Park creator Trey Parker. “[I call it] the rule of replacing ‘ands’ with either ‘buts’ or ‘therefores’,” he explains in the documentary, Six Days to Air.

“And so it’s always like: ‘This happens and then this happens and then this happens’. Whenever I can go back in the writing [room] and change that to: ‘This happens, therefore this happens, but this happened’; whenever you can replace your ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ or ’therefore’, it makes for a better story.”

The research of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (pictured) played a pivotal role in developing the theory of natural selection. But over time, Charles Darwin became almost universally thought of as the father of evolution.

A strong narrative explains why Charles Darwin became known as the father of evolution while Alfred Wallace was relegated to historical footnotes.

Both came up with the same theory of evolution and at the same time. Wallace’s books had a Narrative Index of between 11 and 14; Darwin books hit indices of between 17 and 20–telling a better narrative.

Now, imagine if not only is your narrative structure on point, but you tell the story with warmth, humour and emotions.

When we share our own real-life stories, or the stories of others, our audiences feel that they get to know us as authentic people.

“Stories powerfully connect us to our listeners,” says Geoffrey Berwind, a professional storytelling consultant and trainer.

“When we share our own real-life stories, or the stories of others, our audiences feel that they get to know us as authentic people–people who have lives outside the corporate setting, people who have struggled with problems and who have figured out how to overcome them.”

Humans have been telling stories for centuries, but as claimed by author Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, there are only, as the title says, seven plots.

There is the “overcoming the monster” plot (Beowulf, War of the Worlds); “rags to riches” (Cinderella, Jane Eyre); “the quest” (Illiad, The Lord of the Rings); “voyage and return” (Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland); “rebirth” (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol); “comedy” (ends in marriage); and “tragedy” (ends in death).

Now, pick a plot, drive a narrative structure through it and glue the story together with warmth, humour and emotion. What’s your story? But perhaps, another question could be, why do we even care for stories. For that, we need to peer under the skull.


Research has found astonishing discoveries of how our brain connect with stories

Now, I’ve shared anecdotes of how storytelling drives human connection, examples of the gold standards of storytelling and what makes a good story. In a nutshell, what I’ve learned is that:

  • Storytelling has been around for centuries.
  • Storytelling drives human connection and foster trust.
  • Storytelling inspires change and is evident in any industry.
  • Storytelling is a solution to a problem presented with warmth, humour and emotion.
  • Storytelling without warmth, humour and emotion is a narrative–presented through a series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.
  • There are seven basic story plots.

Great. Sounds good. But where is the science in all this? How does the brain react to stories? Apparently, the brain is readily wired for stories. Let me breakdown the findings in succinct points.

The brain does not make a distinction between a story and a real life experience

Source: As reported by Annie Murphy Paul from the New York Times. Picture: “Relativity” by graphic designer, Maurits Escher.

The brainwaves of a storyteller and listener are in sync

Source: As researched by neuroscientist, Uri Hasson. Picture: “There are parts that lurk behind / repression” by artist, Allison Diaz.

Neurochemicals cortisol (attention), oxytocin (empathy) and dopamine (happiness) are released when listening to a story

Source: As discovered by neuroscientist, Paul Zak. Picture: Galaxy-inspired epoxy resin painting by artist, Brittany Goldwyn.

The insula, the sensory processor of the brain, is activated when hearing metaphors

Source: As observed by a team of researchers at Emory University. Picture: “Carnage”, flies and resin on canvas, by Damien Hirst.

Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations

Source: From a paper by evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar. Picture: “The Gossips” by illustrator, Norman Rockwell.

We are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a story

Source: According to Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Picture: “Number 23” by Jackson Pollock.

There are hundreds of other findings out there on the science of why storytelling is powerful. That said, there are as many others that are based on pseudoscience. So whatever evidence you meet, dig a little deeper to make sure that it’s worth its salt and take everything else with a pinch of it.


What goes into a compelling story

My first gig as a staff writer was with a weekly broadsheet. I was in my mid-20s and thought I knew everything. I thought I was a rockstar having joined one of the more reputable publications in the country.

I didn’t even have a diploma, or experience, and here I am doing what I love.

One evening, the editor and I were working late. We were heading to print, writers are missing deadlines, he was picking up the slack and toeing the line. He wasn’t exactly the Dalai Lama at that point.

He called me over to his desk. Slouched over a messy pile of papers, all scrawled in red ink and coffee stains, he pointed to one of the sections that I was responsible for.

It was an event listing. Maybe about 50 words long.

Towering over it was the hot air bellowing out of my editor’s nose. His face looked like a stretched rubber band, about to snap at any moment.

Nothing to worry about; must be a minor error–I thought. What happened next almost destroyed my career.

He berated me for what felt like hours. He tore through the event listing. Every word made him angrier. 50 words, so 50 times angrier.

He remarked on my lack of vocabulary and thought it was even more remarkable that I was writing to begin with.

I was in such a state of shock, that my replies were a cross between a nod and a head shake.

He mocked my grasp of the language, degraded my passion for the written word and finished me off by smudging my lowly educational qualification on the face of my self-esteem.

I took it on the chin and carried on.

Do you know what I did the next day? I went to the library. I remember it as clear as the sky. It was the weekend. I felt like a battered soldier looking for food.

But instead of nourishment, I was looking for Writing For Dummies or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Better for Dummies. Maybe what I really needed at that point was Chicken Soup for the Soul.

After two hours in the library, searching in vain, I went to a quiet aisle and completely broke down. Demoralised, broken, it was an ugly cry. The kind Claire Danes would be proud of.

Slouched over a shelf of books, I held myself up and faced a choice: are you going to give up writing or die trying?

I guess the lesson I needed to learn wasn’t about how to write better. It was to stand up for what I believe in. And here I am, writing to you; hungry for you to succeed in telling your story in your own way.

I just shared my story. How do you feel? What is your impression of me? If you had a writing job or need help with your writing, would you give me a call?

What if instead of sharing that story, I offer you facts and figures–I have written thousands of articles and worked with more than 20 publications and won more than 30 awards–do I become just another tool or a trusted collaborator?

As a company, a brand or a public figure, there are many ways to tell your story. But if storytelling is powerful, why doesn’t everyone do it?

I’d consider that this is a result of two reasons: one, they don’t know why storytelling is powerful; and two, they don’t know how to harness its power.

The fact that human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of mankind, ironically, makes it even harder to even acknowledge what makes a story powerful.

However, if we strip the mechanics of what makes a compelling story, some common bolts and nuts can be found. Here are elements that you’ll need to tell a great story.

Share your experiences

Tap into memories and life experiences to illustrate your message.

Define message

No one will remember your story word for word. The message of your story is what listeners take away. Keep your message consistent.

Be authentic

When a story comes from your own experiences, this drives authenticity. And authenticity fosters trust.

Show the fight

Like any good story, there is a conflict. Show what the challenges were and how you overcame it.

Mind the time

Consider sharing brief versions of your stories, like movie trailers, when it’s appropriate. For example, a shorter version in a networking session and a longer version in a presentation.

Expand your platform

Start sharing your story in a platform that you’re comfortable with. Do videos if you enjoy being in front of the camera, or a podcast if your prefer talking. For me, it’s writing. But don’t stop there, try other platforms or expand to speaking engagements or becoming a thought-leader.

In our information-saturated age, business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues and president and founder of Public Words, a communications consulting firm. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.”

We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story.

“We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story,” says Jonah Sachs, CEO of Free Range Studios and author of Winning the Story Wars. “It certainly can be taught and learned.”

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I decided to write this because I wanted to share why and how storytelling matters. It has been a wonderful process and I hope you gained as much as I did.