“Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories”, Yuval Noah Harari, creator of the world-famous book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”
In this article, I will seek to explain why storytelling is important and why empathy is crucial in evoking emotional connections. So what exactly is storytelling and how does it lead us to today?
Figurative paintings discovered in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (Chauvet Cave) in the Ardèrche region in France are thought to be the oldest representation of storytelling as found so far. They are believed to date back to 36,000 years ago.
Storytelling is an exchange between the giver and the receiver, the storyteller and the listener. It is a part of what makes us human, common to all of us despite the cultural barriers we may face. Learned as children, it is something fluid with the ability to adapt to each new medium.
We tell stories to piece together memories, our gaps between past and present, to discover our mind, our imaginations and crucial to our own story, ourselves. We attempt to weave our ways around the world by connecting information together and by coming up with new information that could be of benefit to others.
Stories can be either works of fiction formed by creating plots around imaginary or real people and events, or nonfiction, by telling truthful tales around people or happenings. Stories teach us, we start to imagine, we develop and put things in perspective. Positive stories give us reason to become better versions of ourselves. Negative stories, on the other hand, may do the opposite. But they may result in a position reaction from us.
We tell stories to build connection and if empathy is not used to enhance a story, our story may fall on the wrong ears.
Empathy, as defined by Cambridge Dictionary is “The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”
We use empathy to humanise our writing for our reader’s benefit. Empathy can help build stories around characters as our emotions are evoked. Empathy helps allow more depth in your stories.
We take time to use our experiences to explain what we may be talking about - to personify each experience. We use emotive words and descriptive language to add value to what we write. We need to make sure there is depth and experience in every piece of descriptive language we write.
When writing empathetically for an audience there are three things to bear in mind. We begin by designing for our readers: Who are they? What defines them? What are they interested in? Next, we imagine we are the reader: What questions might we ask? Finally, we seek to add more depth: we take from our experiences and imagine how we might communicate with our audience, in turn making it more human.
A story with empathy makes for a better story because it engages with the listener or the reader.
There are three types of empathy as defined by psychologists: emotional, cognitive and compassionate. We might use cognitive empathy to create better stories, the person reading the story might read with emotional empathy and compassionate empathy might have been what inspired us to write the story in the first place.
For more information on the different types of empathy please read this article.
In order to utilise and understand empathy better, we need to train ourselves. Reading fiction stories is a great way to do just that! The more stories we need, the more we connect to the characters in them, the more we begin to feel how they may feel and start to imagine them. We then apply this in our real life and learn to identify traits in the characters in our day in day.
Effective empathy works through communication, imagination and an ability to adapt to every situation.
When empathy is done well, the experience is an emotional one for the reader. In order to be ethical, we need to ensure we know the emotional impact our piece may have on the reader and adapt it where need be.
Storytelling is a great tool that can be used to create empathy around businesses as it helps to build a bigger picture around each company. But how can we make those stories more empathetic and how can we apply that empathy to everything we write?
Empathetic stories are realistic, human at their core. They are not lists of facts, rather filled with details, depths of emotion, jokes or metaphors.
To quote Susan Gunelius, a contributor at Forbes, “Great stories make people feel something and these emotions create powerful connections between the audience, the characters with the stories and the storyteller.”
Emotional connections draw the audience in, they make them feel something and feel intrigued to find out more. Without an emotional connection, we may find our words leaving eyes empty as people lose the desire to read on.
Emotional connection is about knowing your audience and attracting them to why you are telling the story you are telling. Emotion can help lift the short-term impact of a story into a long-term impact as we often remember the stories of which had a profound effect on us. Emotion can inspire audiences to learn and develop.
One of the most important and also potentially very difficult parts of empathy is listening. How can we listen more actively and how can we apply active listening to empathetic storytelling?
Active listening is about really taking the time to listen to what is being said as opposed to passively “hearing”. Active listening is about so much more: it involves listening with all senses.
In terms of storytelling, active listening is taking the time to think about what the audience may say and creating in response. Surveys, polls, events and social media can be great ways to find this out.
So what is the difference between empathy and sympathy? Sympathy is about sharing your own opinion based on experiences. Whereas empathy is about finding understanding in something of which you may not have had an experience of or agree with. Empathy is something which you can learn, whilst sympathy is something which may come more naturally.
Dr Brené Brown explains it perfectly in the following video:
The benefit to empathy, as opposed to sympathy in storytelling, is very much about not having your emotions driving whatever you are writing about. Opening your mind to empathetic storytelling allows you to write beyond your own perspective.
In conclusion, to be successfully empathetic one must be ethical with the ability to listen, to take on other’s experiences, to understand them without judgement and to communicate understanding.