The Primordial Power of Storytelling

Storytelling can be the key to engaging distracted, disinterested and distrustful audiences.Since we learned to draw on cave walls, mankind has been telling stories. Now a Seattle senior center is demonstrating how storytelling can be a successful communications tool for dementia patients — and perhaps proving the technique's worth in reaching any distracted or disinterested audience.

Elderly persons suffering from dementia lose their memory. That lack of memory can generate deep frustration in trying to communicate with loved ones they don't recognize.

In Seattle, storytelling is treated like therapy, according to a piece aired by NPR. Patients are shown interesting photographs and asked to compose a story about the life of the person in the picture. Since these aren't personal pictures, patients don't need to struggle to recall faces, names or places. They just make up the stories, which creates a form of release. Patients can communicate without the burden of a failing memory.

The Notebook, a highly regarded romance movie released in 2004, centers around an elderly man (James Garner) reading a passionate love story to an elderly woman with dementia (Gena Rowlands). The story captivates Rowlands' character, but it isn't until toward the end of the movie that you realize the love story is about these two characters when they were young. The story's happy ending jogs a burst of memory in Rowlands' character, and she recognizes Garner as her lifelong love. Their embrace is sadly fleeting, but deeply revealing.

Whether storytelling can actually revive memory in dementia patients is debatable, but there is no doubt storytelling can spark interest in all kinds of people and all kinds of subjects.

NPR cites a study in The Gerontologist, co-authored by Anne Basting, that concluded "storytelling makes people more engaged and alert."

For most communicators, the challenge is to break through barriers of disinterest, distraction and distrust. Storytelling can be the key.

The story form appears embedded in the way our brains work. We naturally have an interest in a well-told story. Just as important, we want to share in the story. 

This kind of engagement is exactly what people today are looking for in associating with brands or causes. It is the reason why storytelling shouldn't be an ancient relic in your communication toolkit.

In The Notebook, a story of young passion revives the memory of an elderly woman suffering from dementia.