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I have found a secret weapon!

Yes, I really have. In the Philippines. I am not talking about a new weapon of war in our age of belligerent world leaders. I am talking about the power of story.

Several weeks ago I co-facilitated an international workshop in the Philippines.

The organisers wanted to pair systems thinking with storytelling. For an awkward 4 weeks the wonderful storytelling expert and me worked on combining our approaches. We then worked with 2 incredibly gifted visual facilitators from Pushpinvisuals who diligently captured the outcomes of the workshop.

After the workshop many participants told me that they found the workshop magical. But what made it so?

The answer is: Stories – both told and visualised.

We approached every aspect of the workshop through story: From assessing the past to envisioning the future; from analysis of the current system to developing strategy. Sometimes in small groups, sometimes in pairs or in plenary. Over the course of 3.5 days we moved from our individual stories to the joint story of the work that will go forward.

On the final day I was deeply touched by the passion that was expressed in the final stories of the campaign that people shared beautifully and which connected all the elements we had crafted over the days. I wasn’t the only one who secretly rubbed a tear away.

Returning to Amsterdam I wanted to know: why had this approach touched me so deeply? What is the power of story?


When I became a campaigner I was taught to analyse a problem, create a power analysis and a critical pathway to achieve a goal. However the pathways we created with so much dedication never actually resembled how the real world unfolded. We lobbied for policy change and got it, only to realise that the problem persisted or simply moved elsewhere.

The reason for this is that we often pretend that our world is simple rather than complex.

To make social change creators more effective, I have been running workshops and trainings on developing strategy using elements of system and design thinking. However I have found it challenging to move people away from logically planning critical pathways to embrace new ideas and concepts. Until I found this secret weapon.

Researchers have found that if we listen to a power point presentation, only the language processing parts of our brains are active. Nothing else. Things change dramatically however, when we are being told a story.

Drawing by pushpinvisuals.

In addition to language processing, other areas of the brain, such as the sensory & motor cortex become activated if descriptions are used such as “leathery hands” or “kicking a ball”. We try to relate the story to our existing experiences of e.g. joy, pain, disgust. So listening to a story engages our whole brain in very different ways. And it gets better.

In a study by Uri Hassen of Princeton University, it was discovered that when you listen to stories and understand them, you experience similar brain pattern as the person telling the story.

Telling stories builds empathy. Your listeners feel what you feel as they experience what you experience.

By simply telling a story you can plant ideas, thoughts and emotions’ into your listener’s brain. You connect. Not on a logical level but a deep emotional one that can lead people to embrace new ideas and thinking in a much more effective way.

Now knowing the research behind the magic I witnessed, I am determined to approach my work through stories and hope that others get inspired to use this secret weapon in their own work!

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