Can you explain what you’re talking about when you talk about the “science of storytelling”?
People think storytelling belongs to the humanities, the world of art and culture. It’s not usually thought of as a field that can be studied scientifically, brought into the lab. That’s what a lot of my work has been about. There are all these questions about storytelling, but because we couldn’t figure out a way to look at them scientifically we really couldn’t make a huge amount of progress answering them.
Why do you think it took a long time before we approached storytelling from a scientific point of view?
We have all these questions: What are stories for? What effects do stories have on us? How do we react to stories emotionally, mentally, physiologically? And all we had – up until recently – was armchair speculation. Yet a lot of these questions are just basic lab questions and basic psychology questions. It’s a direct application of basic psychology methods, and not really all that radical, but there’s been resistance to doing scientific work in the humanities in general and in storytelling in particular. There’s a sense that stories must be protected from science because they’re people are afraid of losing that sense of mysticism and wonder, and if you explain the magic you’ll end up explaining it away – and I think that’s kind of crazy.
Can you talk us through some potential applications of storytelling science?
There’s things stories can do that other forms of messaging can’t do. Stories are really good at getting attention. Attention spans are all over the place these days, but stories are the one thing that can reliably still the wandering and restless mind. You can pay attention to a story for hours on end – nothing else can do that.
It’s emotional, and people make decisions on the basis of emotion, not on the basis of logic. Because it’s emotional, it’s persuasive, so you lose yourself when you go into story world. People get really open-minded, or a meaner way to say it is they get kind of gullible. They drop their scepticism and cynicism and let the story and the message wash over them.
The information in a story is sticky, it’s more memorable. Stories have been used since time immemorial as a way of conveying information to people, and that’s more memorable than just throwing facts at them. So there’s a bunch of things like that which are really important to communication in many different fields but particularly in business fields. There’s a number of ways that a story can’t be equalled by other forms of communication.
It’s interesting that MRI scans show we’re participants when we read or watch stories, rather than spectators. That can be useful for experience businesses, where you want people to be actively engaged and participating, whether it’s a museum exhibit or a theme park ride.
Disney World’s a great example. You walk into Disney World and enter this alternate dimension of reality, almost literally walking into a storybook. That’s a huge part of the appeal. There are all the great rides, but there’s this very familiar world and Disney lets you live these stories that you love. Other attractions have rollercoasters – what sets Disney apart is this incredibly rich story universe that you enter when you pass through the gates.
You’ve said our minds can easily flutter to something else, and that our attention spans are notoriously short. This is not good news for an experience designer. What must they do to keep the audience hooked?
If you look at a novel, the story doesn’t happen all at once. It’s gradually built up in the reader’s mind, detail by detail, character by character, plot point by plot point, over hundreds of pages.
Events and attractions can be designed the same way. You walk into a distinct world and the story is built up, experience by experience, plot point by plot point, with the accretion of detail just like you’d have in a novel. The more you do that the more you tap into this unique power of story to grab attention, rouse emotion and persuade. In an attraction or ride, your hero might be the guest, and the attraction is centred around a problem the character is attempting to solve.
There are museum experiences where the exhibit designers have just understood, carefully building the story piece by piece. Storybuilding doesn’t just happen; stories are built gradually. The narratives you get at a museum can be very story-like.
I gave an events industry talk and the audience asked about how literal you can be. The question is, are we making a weak connection between what happens during an event [or in an attraction] and what happens in a novel, but not a literal connection? No, I think the more literal you can make the connection the better.
When have you visited an attraction and felt you were being told a story?
Disney has stuck with me since my childhood. It’s been many years since I’ve been, but I still remember the magical wonder of the place and walking around slack-jawed. The feeling of being inside the story, of seeing the Disney princesses I recognised from the stories and saying, “There’s Snow White!” That stuck with me and made a tremendous impression on me.
At Universal Studios, it used to be the Back to the Future ride. These days it’s Harry Potter, and the ride’s about you being the hero inside the familiar stories.
I recently had a wonderful experience at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising in Poland. It was utterly astounding – one of the best museums I’ve been to, partly because it’s so focused. It’s about the weeks during World War II when the Varsovians rose up against the Nazis, and were utterly crushed. Warsaw afterwards looked like Hiroshima, reduced to rubble, depopulated, with almost everyone dead or sent to concentration camps.
There are a few key characters who the curators keep returning to, and you follow them through their struggles. There are incredible images of people – not great heroes of warfare or great generals, but regular men, women and children (as the whole population was mobilised). It was very story-like and had a powerful impact on me. I left feeling eviscerated, emotionally destroyed. I’d just walked through an epic tragedy. It’s the sense of entering into that world for a few hours – as if getting lost in a novel – you disappear in that world and get swept along by the narrative. It was very powerful.