This week was National Storytelling Week. The event, now in its 16th year, celebrates the tradition of oral storytelling as “the very first way of communicating life experiences”. The timing feels particularly apt as this week we have been on a recce to Georgia with World Jewish Relief and have sat in the homes of many people, listening as they shared their experiences of life today and over the decades.
It was 10 years ago last month that I took on the (brilliant!) job of setting up VSO’s story gathering team, and it was 10 years in the autumn since Ben did his first photography shoot in Mozambique. Over the last decade we have met hundreds of people and have been moved, inspired, angered and horrified by the experiences they share with us. We never cease to be honoured and humbled that they speak to us with such honesty and courage and we are never immune to the shiver a powerful story can send up our spines.
This week was no different. Listening to an 85-year-old Nazi victim describe her experiences to a 17-year-old student and hearing from a woman who was a nurse in WW2 reminded us of how important sharing personal experiences is to keeping history alive. Having a 35-year-old woman tell us about the challenges of bringing up her family when her generation lost all opportunity for education and employment with the collapse of the Soviet Union helped us to understand more clearly the impact of more recent events.
This is the beauty of storytelling. By looking at events and issues through the eyes of someone who has experienced them we gain a clearer, more human insight on the subject. Complexity is simplified and with that empathy flourishes. And that’s not just chance, it is how our brains work. As we got off the plane at Gatwick this afternoon Alex, was leading Mile 91’s session at the CharityComms The Art of Storytelling event in Bristol. In it she touched on the science of storytelling.
On our training days we frequently refer trainees to this article on Lifehacker and this lecture on why we are hardwired to think in stories. If you are interested in understanding why stories are such a powerful tool in learning and in building empathy then I would thoroughly recommend checking out these links and some of the research they signpost. But as a very top line summary, scientists have found that our brain reacts in exactly the same way whether we actually experience something ourselves or just have the experience described to us by another person. In short, the right story well-told will help your audiences to walk in the shoes of your beneficiaries and client groups. Imagine the power of that, and what better reason to keep the art of verbal storytelling alive?