The Secret to Why Stories Work

What Dolly Parton, a poet and a former Finance Director taught me about storytelling.

Credit: Janelle Hiroshige — found via Unsplash

I’ve been helping brands articulate their stories for years and in the back of my head, I’ve sat with the question: why do stories work? I finally think I’ve figured it out, with a little help from Dolly Parton, poet Gregory Orr and Finance Director-turned-coach Mark Seabright.

Stories contain the chaos of our emotions

I had a mind-blowing conversation with my business mentor, Mark Seabright. Once a Finance Director, he’s now a coach for founders like me. When I asked him why stories work, he shared something so clear that made everything in my head connect and light up like the northern lights. What I heard, was this:

The purpose of every story is containment.

Containment goes all the way back to the beginning of our lives as newborn babies. When we’re really young, we can’t contain our emotions. We scream, we cry, we try to express ourselves. Our caregivers contain our emotions, process them and hand them back to us in a manageable way.

That’s what a good story does too. It works at different levels:

  • You’ve got the author who is seeking to contain the emotions of the reader
  • You’ve got the characters who to some extent either are or aren’t containing each other’s emotions
  • Then you’ve got all the sub plots and how individual characters are containing their own emotions, or not

Stories are melting pots of emotions. And those emotions need to be contained.

If you think about it, we’ve all done it. You start reading a book and then you give up after 50–60 pages because you can’t be arsed. The author has failed to adequately contain your emotions in relation to the story. They haven’t engaged you, they haven’t drawn you in and held you in. Containment is about holding.

So, you’ve got three stages:

  1. Taking it on
  2. Processing it
  3. Handing it back

Think about what a really good story does for us… It draws us in. It holds us there. It lets us go at the end.

Think about any good book, film, or TV ad… we are hopelessly drawn into it because we identify with what’s going on — we see ourselves within it. Not because it’s a familiar story, but because it’s so well written and so well performed. Containment.

Stories create a simplicity people need

Dolly Parton’s music never fails to pull on my heartstrings and, yes, I did binge her Netflix series, Heartstrings. I highly recommend it.

What I love about Dolly Parton is the way she holds you with her words, builds up the story and holds you all the way to the very end and then, just stops. No fade out. Nothing. That’s the end of the story and you’re instantly left wanting more. You were so captured in it. You could see it and feel every sentence. You can picture that red-headed Jolene and that little girl Sandy and her Puppy Dog Andy. With Dolly Parton’s stories, you can continue the story in your own way and make it yours. That’s the power of storytelling right there.

We can all learn from the way Dolly Parton summarises why people need songs and stories in her Netflix documentary, Here I Am. This was beautifully put:

“I think there will always be country music. I do believe that people will search out those songs like the Jolenes, or the I Will Always Love Yous or the Hank Williams songs because they are the stories that people naturally live.

They are your true feelings about love and heartache and family and poverty so I think that there will always be simplicity that people need because the world is so complicated. I think that country music kinda simplifies simplicity, and we’re gonna always need that the crazier the whole world gets.” — Dolly Parton

Stories shape disorder and create order in people’s lives

“What’s beautiful about a poem is that you take on this chaos and this responsibility, and you shape it into order and make something of it. Emerson says, what we need to be is “active souls.” And certainly, when you make a poem you have become an active soul. When you’re a victim, you’re a passive experiencer of whatever it is that’s happened. But to turn your world into words and then shape that is to become an active soul. And it’s just as true about reading as it is about writing. Again, Emerson says there is creative reading as well as creative writing.” — Gregory Orr

Stories build strength in our relationships with ourselves and others.

In life, we’re constantly straddling order and disorder and what words can do in stories is hold the disorder and shape it into something that restabilised the meaning in our lives.

A story says, ‘You just bring me your chaos. I’ll bring you all sorts of ordering principles. I’ll hold you. I’ll remake your world to reflect what it is right now. And I’ll make you feel a part of it. You’ll belong here.

Gregory Orr says it perfectly, “words make worlds”. I believe this is true too. One of the first things Gregory discovered that made him a poet was the discovery that language in poetry is magical language. It creates a world.

Stories summon worlds into being. The words used to make up the story draw people in and hold them there. They dramatise people’s experience of disorder and their need for order. This is why stories are an act of care. Because this is how connection is made. And when connection is made, a world with meaning exists.

Thank you for being here. I hope you enjoyed reading this piece.

Here’s a little bit about me…

I’m the co-founder of Make Us Care — a strategic creative partner for businesses doing good in the world. I work closely with founders, leaders and marketing teams to build brands people care about. My magic sauce is a communications framework I created called the 5 Stories.

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Founder and creator of 5 Stories, a methodology I use to build brands people care about. I write about storytelling and being an entrepreneur 🙃