Storytelling as dialogue: the back and forth of shared context

Uri Hasson uses fMRI scans to show how storyteller patterns of brain activity are significantly duplicated in the mind of a story listener.  But of more interest to me, he pinpoints the yawning gap between lab research and real life near the end of his talk (after 10:00)

Does the neural coupling magic happen everytime you tell a good story?

No. No, it doesn’t.

This neural coupling only happens if teller and listener share the same context or “have common ground.”  I don’t think analyzing your audience is the same as feeling solidarity with your audience.  The stories that flow from solidarity enable much deeper connections – like a dance the storyteller both leads and follows.  Placing yourself firmly in an empathetic relationship with those you wish to influence may inspire higher levels of engagement, too.

Traditional storytellers often go back and forth with their audience until they find a shared context. They know it will be there – humans are humans.   Once they find it, their stories flow along the shared context to deliver a kind of “you are not alone” feeling as well the emotional ride of the journey they narrate.

I found another interesting observation about the back and forth relationship between teller and listener in the online version of his research article:

“We connected the extent of neural coupling to a quantitative measure of story comprehension and find that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding.”

Enabling an audience to anticipate what’s going to happen next may be another benefit of starting out from a shared context.  Traditional storytellers often give their audience a chance to jump ahead – narrating slowly enough to let their audience experience the delight of getting there first and guessing right.

Why not add a bit of back and forth with your audience to negotiate a shared context before telling a story? It will put you at ease and may reveal gaps in understanding before they cause a problem.



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