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Why Stories Captivate: Tomas Pueyo at TEDxHumboldtBay (Full Transcript)

Tomas Pueyo – TRANSCRIPT

The elder Homo sapiens hobbles towards the fire. The younglings gather around him and sit down in silence. They’re eager to hear from the most famous hunter of the tribe. He wants to impart his knowledge. He clears his throat, and begins.

There is a 25% probability of finding predators near the river. Big felines run 50% faster than humans. Trees double the lifespan of helpless hunters. Poor younglings… Do you think they’re going to remember anything? Have you been in a situation like that where you were bored to death in a presentation? And what about that poor hunter? He spent a lifetime honing his skills as a hunter and way too many hours on that PowerPoint. And yet his experience is going to die with him because he couldn’t communicate it.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like that where you tried to teach something to somebody but you couldn’t get him to remember anything, say “Aye!” If you’ve ever tried to convince somebody of something with arguments, with reason, but they don’t reason, they don’t listen to arguments, say “Aye!” This has happened to all of us.

Being right is not enough. We need to be able to communicate it and for that, facts and reason just don’t make it. That’s why the most famous TED speakers in the world only spend 25% of their talks telling facts and 65% telling stories. And they’re right. Stories are 2 to 10 times more memorable than facts. Let me repeat that, because I just gave you a fact, so it’s not very memorable. Stories are 2 to 10 times more memorable than facts alone. And that’s why the most influential books in history are series of stories and they’ve spawned the biggest religions in the world.

Stories are powerful. So why don’t we use them more in our everyday life to communicate? We should be using them all the time but in fact we use facts, we use reason. And I think there’s two reasons for that: Number 1: we’re not really sure why stories captivate so much. I mean, we’re rational animals. We use facts every day. Can’t we just keep using that?

And the second one is: We’re not really sure how to craft stories easily. And I asked myself these two questions all of my life. My father is a film-maker. We talked about stories at home all my life. I studied some scriptwriting in grad school and I even wrote a book about story structure. That taught me how to craft stories, but not why stories captivate. The answer came to me from my job. I have to read a lot of neuroscience for it and the neuroscience of stories is ‘crazy’. So I’m going to tell you about it but instead of just telling you about it we’re going to do a little experiment, OK?

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As I tell you about the neuroscience of stories I want you to analyze what’s going on in your brains, OK? All right, let’s go. If I tell you “bipedal motion”, what are you thinking? Walking, OK… Usually your brains are trying to decipher the words maybe put them together. A couple of parts of your brain are getting activated. They’re different for all of us. You’re trying to decipher the words, picture them. And it’s hard.

If instead I tell you about a group of women who’re running. And they’re pushing with their feet against the ground as hard as they can; their muscles are tensing, the wind is blowing on their faces — Did you notice that? It was a bit different, right? In your brain… What was going on? The part of your brain that would make you run in reality got activated. And the part of your brain that would make you feel the wind on your skin got activated too. Your brain can’t tell the difference between hearing a story and actually living an experience. It’s crazy! It’s like virtual reality: they’re creating a virtual world and your brain can’t tell the difference between the real world and the virtual world.

What if I told you about three evil boys. They’re chasing you on their bikes and they want to hurt you. So you try running away, but you can’t because you’re crippled. You still push as hard as you can and finally you break free! And you’re able to run! What happened there, in your brain. Did you feel like you were more engaged? Did you feel like you were there? That’s actually what was happening in your brain. It feels like you were there because your brain activity is the same as the brain activity of the main character.

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In fact, it was the same brain activity for all of us: you, me. By telling a story, I was able to “telepathically” communicate what was going on in my brain. It’s like pure empathy. All of this brain activity in your brain is making stories memorable. It’s drilling them in your brain.

So, what is a story from a neuroscience perspective? It’s an empathy machine. It’s a device that enables you to get into somebody else’s brain to experience their experiences, think their thoughts, and feel their feelings. It’s pretty cool, right? It’s pretty cool, right?! (Audience: Yeah!) So this is why stories are powerful, and we need to know how to use that to craft good stories.

If you ask Aristotle 2000 years ago, he would tell you about the three acts of a story: beginning, middle and end. But I never found that really super insightful. We need a bit more detail to be able craft stories. So this is a recipe that you could use. But I’m not going to tell you about it. I’m going to show you.

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Two things before that: there’s going to be a few spoilers about the classics. If you haven’t watched them, you should feel bad and this is your punishment, right here. Number 2: it’s going to go pretty fast, OK? So grab your armchairs. Ready? All right let’s go!

(Song beginning The Lion King)

We start in the ordinary world. It’s the world of the main character. It’s the normal world. But there’s something weird about it. Something that doesn’t feel quite right. Until suddenly (Knock knock) The inciting incident happens. It’s an event around the beginning of the story that changes the world of the main character but he doesn’t know how to handle that information. (Hagrid: “You’re a wizard, Harry.”) That’s when the mentor arrives! He’s going to push the main character to face the inciting incident, stop escaping, and drag him out of the ordinary world to cross the threshold into the extraordinary world. A magical world… A new world, completely different from the ordinary world that he knew. And there, he will meet new allies, (Aliens: Oooooooohhhh) (Buzz: Greetings!) new enemies… and he will start facing new tests and challenges. Until suddenly… Boom! The “midpoint” happens. It’s an event around the middle of the story that changes the story completely, because it changes how the main character sees the world.

He realizes he was wrong, but he doesn’t know how to cope with that new information! So he’s weak. He’s thinking about it, and the enemies are taking advantage of this weakness to close in. They’re threatening him! They’re surrounding him! And that when they strike! It’s the crisis! It’s the lowest point of the story. It’s a moment of death, of loss… The main character is on his knees, and he realizes he needs to change something. It’s the return. He’s coming back, energized. And he’s going to face the enemy one last time.

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But now he’s changed, so he’s able to rise to new heights. And now, he wins. Now we see the aftermath: he goes back to the ordinary world, where he came from. But he’s changed. Thanks to that, he won, and thanks to that, he gets his reward! So this is the structure of stories, right? We’re done.

No! It feels quite intuitively right, right? Not at all! You ask another storyteller and he’s going to tell you: “Forget about this recipe, this is the one that you should follow! The other one has all these things wrong!” And then you ask another storyteller, and he’s going to tell you: “Wait, what? Stories don’t even have three acts. They have five… or six… or eight… or 22… or 31! In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of story recipes out there, and none of them agrees. That debate might be cool if you’re writing a book or a movie.

But for us, when we just need a recipe, an easy one to follow, to craft our stories for everyday use, we need something simpler. Something more fundamental. What if stories were not linear but circular? Circular in that the beginning and end are connected. After going through the extraordinary world and the adventure we come back to the ordinary world. And thanks to the contrast, we can highlight the differences. We can see that, for example, in The Lion King. We start with the birth of Simba. And after going through the entire circle of life, we finish with the birth of his child. We can see it in 12 years a slave, where we start with a group of black men who’re enslaved and we finish with a group of black men who’re free. We see it in Gravity where we start with a woman, alone, in space, looking at the Earth, and we finish with that woman, alone, on Earth, looking at space.

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We can see it in Mad Men, where in the very first episode of the very first season, Don Draper is unhappy, but he solves a very difficult advertising campaign. And by the end, seven years later, in the very last episode, again he’s solving a very difficult advertising campaign but this time he’s happy… Or in The Godfather, where we start with the wedding and we finish with the funeral. So you can see here this structure of the beginning and the end and the circle. And the same thing happens just after that, in the “problem” and “solution”, the inciting incident and the climax.

So for example, going back to The Godfather, at the beginning, Michael Corleone says: “My family are crooks, but I am not like them.” What he means is: “For me, honesty and civility are more important than family.” By the end of the movie, he’s killed all of his family’s enemies and he’s lying to his wife’s face, therefore, putting family before honesty and civility. So you can see this mirror image there.

The same thing happens in Toy Story for example, where we start with Buzz: he lands and he challenges Woody’s leadership. And by the end of the story, they are friends and co-leaders. This pattern that I’m telling you about happens throughout the entire story. The first half is about exploring the problem and the second half is about exploring the solution. That’s why in a story like The Matrix, we can see scene after scene after scene from the first half is mirrored in the second half. It’s crazy! It’s like they took the first half of the movie and then, every scene, they revisited in the second half, mirroring them.

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So, you can see now the structure of stories, right? The first half is mirroring the second half, there’s this symmetry here. And whenever you have two halves, they need to connect at some point. And that is… the “midpoint”. The Midpoint is the key event of a story, because it brings the insight to solve the problem. In The Godfather, it’s the first time Michael Corleone kills therefore, putting family before civility… and he loves it.

In The Lion King, it’s when Mufasa, the lion king, dies, and his son realizes he cannot be a brat anymore. He will have to eventually grow up and become the lion king. In Toy Story, it’s when Buzz and Woody are kidnapped, and they realize if they don’t stoop bickering, they will die. In The Force Awakens, it’s when Rey touches the lightsaber and she realizes she might be a Jedi too. So this is the structure of stories, and you can see that it’s like a ring.

The “ring structure”. And this structure happens everywhere, not just the movies I just told you about. You can see it in Hamlet, in Macbeth. In fact, in most of Shakespeare’s works. You can see it, even farther down… Beowulf? The first epic in English language has a ring structure. Farther down? What about Buddha’s life? And then you can go also not just for stories, but sagas. For example, every Star Wars trilogy is a “ring”. And all six movies are a ring too, the first six movies.

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In Harry Potter, every book is a ring. All seven together are a ring. And you can also see that at the micro level: for a good story, every act, every scene is a ring. Why is this structure everywhere? Why can we find it really everywhere? Is there something fundamental about it? Well, it’s the structure of problem-solving. You state the problem. You explore the problem. You bring the insight to solve the problem. You explore the insight. And you solve it. Stories are problem-solving.

So no I’m telling you that stories are problem-solving, and I told you five minutes ago that they’re empathy machines, right? How do you put these two things together? Stories are a way to get into somebody else’s brain to see how we solve problems. Or put in another way, stories are a way to learn.

See, hundreds of thousands of years ago, Homo sapiens were not the strongest, they were not the fastest. But we were the best at solving problems. Those who loved stories the most could solve more problems. They could survive more. They could have more children and spread their genes. And that is how we have evolved to love stories because they teach us.

See, that hunter, he would have never shared those bullet points, right? He would have said: “Oh, when I was your age I was hungry one day, so I went to the forest to hunt. As I got close to the river, I saw a lion and the lion saw me — So I started running away, but he was faster than me so I jumped up a tree and I saved myself.” And what would the younglings say? “Oh, wow! I should not go close to the river, there’s predators there. I should not try to outrun a lion. And if I’m in danger, I should climb up a tree.” The very same lessons that they would never remember before are now drilled in their minds.

You want to use this power of stories? You listen to me and you listen to me well. Are you tired of trying to teach people stuff, but they don’t remember anything? Stop shoving your facts and start wrapping them in stories! Are you tired of trying to convince people of stuff but they don’t attend to reasons? Stop ramming your reasons down their throats and start using stories. But don’t just use one story once. Use stories at home, use stories at school, use stories at work, everywhere, every day! You, TEDsters, have the unique intellectual curiosity to seek the truth. Master storytelling and you will spread it. Thank you.

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By Pangambam S

I have been a Transcriber and Editor in the transcription industry for the past 15 years. Now I transcribe and edit at SingjuPost.com. If you have any questions or suggestions, please do let me know. And please do share this post if you liked it and help you in any way.