Deborah Grayson Riegel MSW

Speak Easy

How Anyone Can Tell a Story like J.K. Rowling

What we all can learn about changing beliefs and behaviors

Posted Sep 17, 2018

Lara Hughes/Pixabay. CC0 Creative Commons. Free for commercial use. No attribution required
Source: Lara Hughes/Pixabay. CC0 Creative Commons. Free for commercial use. No attribution required

Top business schools ranging from Columbia to Wharton teach storytelling as a way to prepare leaders to deliver compelling, persuasive messages that appeal to both heads and hearts. Firms ranging from KMPG to Deloitte now couple candidate recruitment with storytelling, and companies like Nike and Disney include “storytelling skills” among other qualifications for open jobs. 

Why so much focus on storytelling? 

Because, according to research in neuroscience and psychology, stories are more memorable than numbers, data, facts and statistics. When we hear facts and data, two parts of our brain are working—Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. We are basically just decoding language. When we listen to a story, however, those same two parts are engaged, plus our sensory and motor cortexes —which are activated when we have an experience—so we actually feel the story as if we are a part of it. This increase in brain activity dramatically increases our retention. 

As molecular biologist John Medina, author of “Brain Rules” explains “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event… you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”

As Ludmila Mladkova of the University of Economics in Prague found, stories engage our emotional mind, not our rational mind. As a result, stories help people overcome the barriers we all build against new knowledge – especially new knowledge that might be contrary to beliefs we currently hold. Stories decrease our resistance to new ideas.

But with so much focus on stories and storytelling, how can presenters and communicators find a way to tell a story that cuts through the noise? By following the wisdom of billionaire Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling who said, “There's always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”

Stories can help you get people from where they are to where they have not been. Stories can “transport” people to another place—another way of feeling, another way of thinking and another way of acting. Stories create shifts.

Think about Harry Potter himself. He was transported from unwanted to beloved, from sad to joyful, from victim to victor—and much more. He went on multiple transformational journeys and brought us along with him to think, feel and root for him all along the way.

Wouldn’t you like your listeners and followers to do the same for you?

In order to use the wisdom of Harry Potter to make your next pitch, presentation or communique engage and inspire, think about the beliefs and behaviors your listener or listeners hold now – and what you’d like those beliefs and behaviors to be in the near future.

Here are 30 classic storytelling shifts to get you started:

1.    From Complexity to Simplicity

2.    From Barriers to Bridges

3.    From What’s Expected to Something Surprising

4.    From Murky to Clear

5.    From The Past to The Future

6.    From Traditional to Unconventional

7.    From Conformity to Rule-breaking

8.    From Scarcity to Abundance

9.    From Conventional to Original 

10.  From Cautious to Daring

11.  From Exhausting to Energizing

12.  From Hopeless to Hopeful

13.  From Passive to Active

14. From Following to Leading

15. From Pushing to Pulling

16. From Rocky to Smooth 

17. From Concerning to Calming 

18. From Vulnerable to Secure

19. From Lopsided to Balanced

20. From Cynical to Optimistic

21. From Trailing behind to Getting out in Front

22. From Reluctant to Ready

23. From Fearful to Brave

24. From Impulsive to Planned

25. From Gloomy to Uplifting

26. From Impractical to Practical

27. From Scattered to Focused

28. From Rigid to Flexible

29. From Ambiguous to Explicit

30. From Failure to Success

You don’t have to be a wizard to make your listeners want to engage with you. But it does take a little bit of storytelling magic.