Let’s talk about storytelling, a term and a practice that is at the centre of our way of communicating nowadays: who can resist the appeal of a good story or a smooth, exciting narrative? The cult of storytelling began with the ancient Greeks, a truly enviable people: they were dreamers yet had common sense, they were humorous and carefree yet at the same time morbidly attracted by human tragedy. As scientists, they knew how to combine intuition and discipline, they were compassionate rulers, never pitiable, unequalled warriors and poets who could stop the mighty Persian Army at the Thermopylae with a single phrase. But they had a weak point, a very weak point: they couldn’t resist the appeal of a well-told story. Even if it wasn’t true. They would acquit someone who was completely in the wrong, even if he was a criminal, even with a ton of evidence, if his plea was intense, moving, grammatically sophisticated, and sublime in evoking human emotions. Storytelling is not only about interpersonal relationships or social networks: it increasingly appears to be a device that works where pure technique shows its limits, whether it is company “governance” or scientific research. Until not so long ago, in laboratories people were taught that the results were the most important thing, that a theory should firstly be verified, that an experiment should produce the hoped-for results. How to write it up in a degree thesis or a scientific article was a secondary matter this came afterwards, when “the dust had settled”, when they were sure of having reason on their side. Disclosing the facts to the public was considered little more than a mere pastime. In a sort of Galilean drunkenness, they forgot that this great man from Pisa was also a storyteller, a first class narrator, who could write well-scripted dialogue. Because the original purpose of a narrative is to be an instrument of knowledge, not literary frippery. The use of social networks by astronauts has completely changed the way in which the human adventure in space is told. Talking about research, a strategy or a decisional process isn’t a passive testimonial but is necessary for understanding and directing, in real time, what we are doing. This is because a narrative is the way in which our brain optimises how it works: a story is a set of links between facts which makes things easier to remember. In this way, learning is more effective because it speaks the same language as our neural connections, it assists our fundamental needs. For this reason we feel a sense of well-being and fulfilment: the ancient Greeks recognised this and rewarded it with absolution from all sins. Recommended reading:
- “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a ruthless analysis of everything that seeks to govern the world’s economy, recognising its arbitrary nature, which looks at the way we perceive factors such as risk, fortune, success and the impact of the unexpected:
- “Life” by Keith Richards: the legendary Rolling Stone’s life journey has been a breathtaking sequence of highly improbable events and connections that have led him to live a life that has been not only successful but in particular serene and fortunate.