Using stories to engage and communicate

Nancy Jenner

“Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think”.  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor


Stories and data

Stories are essential to how we communicate and understand the world. We share stories when we are getting to know someone, we tell stories to our children, we share memories with old friends. Every culture has stories that define beliefs and traditions. Oral, drawn and written, stories come in all forms. Stories are how we record and remember our histories.

Increasingly, stories are used by companies and organizations to inform consumers about what they offer and the value they deliver. Advertisements, videos, instagram – stories are visual, emotional and evocative.

We are also flooded with data. Statistics, polls, percentages, big data, daily steps – everything is measured and much is reported. Data is validation. Because data is empirical, we are inclined to post the numbers, put them in headlines, flash them in presentations. We rely on numbers to prove value. Data is important but, without a corresponding story and emotional hook, the data rarely sticks. Why?


Stories are memorable

We remember stories – family stories, stories from history, funny stories, sad stories, great books and movies. People retain 65 to 70 percent of information shared through stories while only 5 to 10 percent of information is retained when communicated through data and statistics.

Stories help us process facts

When facts and data are framed in a good story, the storyteller connects to the listener and holds their attention. When data is given context and is connected to a specific story, people are more likely to remember what you told them. When we hear data and facts, we pay attention to the information and actively analyzing what we’re hearing. When transformed by a story, we absorb it entirely, without pausing to deconstruct or doubt what we’re hearing. We are more likely to embrace the ideas and messages told in story form.

Stories engage our emotions

Stories evoke emotions and emotions create memories. Research shows that audiences are more likely to engage with and adapt messages that trigger an emotional response and make them feel personally involved.

Stories make us use our brains differently

We believe stories more readily because our brains process narratives differently. Individuals who have the ability to remember long strings of numbers often associate words or pictures with numbers. This mnemonic system for remembering numbers works because it reduces the cognitive burden on the brain. The same principle applies when we frame statistics in a story.


Using stories to engage and communicate resonates in ways big and small. Stories can be visual (consider the story in the picture above) or verbal (think TED talks). Often, stories have both pictures and words. Whatever the media, well-told stories grab our attention, engage our emotions and resonate in ways that statistics and data alone can’t touch.