The Science Behind Stories and Anecdotes


When I first started putting this blog/portfolio together in 2010, I wanted to think of a name for it. To some, the title of their blog is something that has actually held them back from starting it in the first place. They have great ideas but they can’t find that “perfect” title.  It is kind of a big deal!

Throwing around ideas with some friends on the title of the blog, I shared my focus on helping people embrace “meaningful change”, and hence since I was a principal at the time, “The Principal of Change” was born.  To this day, I am still told that it should be “The Principle of Change”, and instead of saying that the title is a play on words, I just say I am Canadian and that we spell differently.


But what about the subtitle?

That decision was actually easier.  I love both hearing and telling stories, and since the focus was on learning and leading, “Stories of Learning and Leading” seemed to make the most sense.  Personally, things resonate with me on a different level when there is a story connected. I can feel it on an emotional level, not only with writing but when watching speakers as well.  I am not against “lecture” at all in today’s education world.  The class that I enjoyed the most and seemingly learned the most during my university days was on 20th Century European History.  The professor lectured every single class, but he didn’t just share facts, he shared and weaved into every “lecture” both personal and applicable anecdotes that resonated with me in an extremely deep manner.  I could honestly say that I remember more from his class than others I took because he didn’t lecture; he told stories.  I would rush to his class, where others I would often show up late.  Lecture, done as an art, is extremely powerful.  It is not the only thing we should do as teachers, but I am not against the “sage on the stage”; you just need to know when to stand up in front of learners and share your wisdom, and when to get out of the way. This is part of the art of teaching.

Yet, is this just a personal preference or is there something more here?

According to the article, “Your Brain on Fiction” (I encourage you to read the entire article), stories can “stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” 

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 FMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

When we see ourselves in a story and make our own connections, ideas resonate and stick.

In the article, “The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains“, they go on to share why this is happening:

Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate our brains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why is that? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think.

We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found:

“Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. Whilst we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else.

Part of the idea of sharing stories and helping people make their own connections is my own belief on “changing others”. As stated in my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset“;

The question I am most frequently asked in my talks and workshops is, “How do we get others to change?” In reality, you can’t make anyone change; people can only change themselves. What you can do is create the conditions where change is more likely to happen.

In “Made to Stick”, by Chip and Dan Heath, they talk about the importance of shifting the onus of learning onto the listener from the storyteller:

To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”

My hope is that through story, I compel readers to want to know more and find their own conclusions. But it is also in hopes that they see themselves in the story.  I often share stories about my family, my daughter, growing up, my parents as immigrants to Canada, some of the frustrations and complexity of being an educator, amongst other things, so people can find similarities to one another and not focus on what makes us different.  Often, people will come up to me after a talk and say, “I totally was thinking of my own family the entire time you were sharing your story.”  They see themselves in the story and see that it is applicable to them as well.  Again, as the Heath brothers share;

The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.

Personally, I like sharing stories and anecdotes in my own writing.  It helps the ideas stick in my own mind, and creates a long-term connection to my thinking.  Selfishly, this is my space to learn and my space to share my thinking.  If “stories” or “anecdotes” do not work for you, that is something I totally understand.  If every person was wired exactly the same, teaching would be a pretty easy profession.

That being said, I do believe our stories are what connect us and make us human.  The stories of our students are the same.  Have you ever had a student tell you a story of their life and it totally changed the way you taught them because it connected you in an emotional level that might not have had been there before?  You understood them on a different level, which compelled you to do something different, even better.

Stories are what makes us human, and I believe they help share our past to help us move towards a better future.
Brandon Sanderson Quote: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

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