Patrick Kelly


The Power of Story in Full

No one knows when the first story was told. It is an unanswerable question. Scientists can’t even agree on when humans first developed a spoken language. Their estimates vary from two million years B.C. to as late as fifty thousand B.C.

But in my mind, the first story was told a million years ago.

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A woman wearing clothes made from animal skins smiled with relief upon seeing her mate safely return from a three-day absence. His hunt was successful, and she prepared the meat for the fire.

After checking on the baby, she walked to where her mate rested on a rock. She gestured wildly, and his face grew confused.

She pointed at his chest and then waved her hand twice in the direction he had gone. Then she pointed to herself, the baby, and the cave that was their home. The man nodded to indicate he understood.

The woman then threw her hand toward the opposite direction, far away. With two wiggling fingers pointed downward, she signaled that something had approached their camp.

Then she got on her knees, hunched her back, and growled like a wolf. She swiped at his legs as if her hands were paws, scratching him. He drew away, his eyebrows lifted, his eyes wild with fear.

She crawled to where their son lay napping and growled at the six-month old. She swiped at the baby, and the man stood, alarmed, his hands bunched into fists.

The woman then stood and picked up several rocks. She shouted and threw a rock at where the wolf had stood, and then indicated with her hands that she had successfully beaten the wolf away from their son. Her mate’s chest heaved with excitement. She threw more rocks as the wolf fled from the baby’s side, and then she stood tall at the edge of camp, proud that she had fought back the wolf.

The man spent the next few hours gathering a huge pile of rocks of the perfect size for throwing at animals, and from then on, he never left camp for longer than a day.

That’s the first story ever told. Before I wrote this paper, the story existed only in my mind, but now it exists in yours.

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There is evidence that storytelling is an ancient human activity. A cave drawing in Lascaux, France from circa 15,000 B.C. depicts a wounded bison, a prone human who is perhaps dead, and a rhinoceros fleeing from the scene. While no one can verify the interpretation of the painting, it almost certainly relates a story. 1/

Humans developed written languages during the third millennium B.C., but the cave drawings and other evidence makes it clear that we told each other stories long before that.

Why? Why are humans compelled to tell their own stories and to hear the stories of others?

Simple. We tell stories because we can. Telling stories is crucial to our ability to teach, relate, and inspire. Furthermore, research has shown than when people engage with a story, it enhances their empathy. 2/

Let’s examine the word empathy more closely.

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy, a noun, is the “action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.” 3/

Ken Oatley, a novelist and research psychologist, describes the relationship between fiction and empathy in this Psychology Today blog post: 4/


“Engaging with fiction is an empathetic act. It involves entering a simulated social world, and inserting characters' goals and plans into the processor that we usually use to make and carry out our plans in the world. It has two parts. In the first, we set aside our own plans and concerns for a while as we take up our book; we then take on the plans and concerns of a fictional character, and empathetically imagine what that character might feel. We are not just book-reading, we are mind-reading. In the second part, we experience emotions--our own emotions--in the circumstances of a character's concerns, plans and actions.”


And so, when we hear or read a story, we leave ourselves to enter another character’s world. As if we were the character, we experience her hopes, dreams, struggles, failures, and successes. We feel her emotions. Researchers refer to this process of leaving ourselves and entering another world as being transported. 5/

Emily Dickinson described this experience beautifully in a poem: 6/


There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take,

Without oppress of toll ;

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul !


The Power-of-Story phenomenon is well understood by experts in many fields. Those experts use the Power of Story to influence people in business, politics, sales, news media, and other fields.

But people aren’t restricted to using the Power of Story simply to influence others toward a particular point of view. Many use the Power of Story to help others. The Power of Story has been used in the field of counseling for decades in the process known as Narrative Therapy. 7/

In a wonderful example of using the Power of Story to help others, Susan Conley relied on faith to cofound the Telling Room, a creative writing lab for children in Portland, Maine. In her powerful Tedx Talk, Susan Conley says, “Storytelling changes peoples’ lives. Storytelling changed my life.” 8/

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Here’s how to use the Power of Story in your life. If you want to experience the struggles of poor whites in Middle America, read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. If you want to understand life as an immigrant in the US, read The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Enríquez.

The path is clear. To understand the perspective of people from different cultures, read their stories.

* * *

My conclusion: Storytelling is critical to the development of a person’s empathy, that ability to relate to the struggles and emotions of others. This makes us better people. Without empathy, humans are selfish, seeking only their own personal gain, resorting to force and power for their fulfillment instead of seeking fulfillment from the benefit of others.

Such is the Power of Story.

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At SunLit Story Time, we believe in the Power of Story. Our mission is best captured by our tagline: Making the World a Better Place One Story at a Time. We want to tell a million stories. We’re at three thousand and counting. You can help.

Join Our List.

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Thank you for listening!


Reference footnotes:

1/, American Historical Association, Rhinoceros.

2/ Paul Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2014.

3/ Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Empathy.

4/ Keith Oatley, “Narrative Empathy,” Psychology Today, Blog post. September 27, 2011.

5/ Richard Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993), 1-25.

6/ Emily Dickinson, Letters of Emily Dickinson: 1845-1886. Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1906), 273. Public Domain.

7/ Stacy Notaras Murphy, “The Power of Story,” Counseling Today, Blog post. September 1, 2012

8/ Susan Conley, “The Power of Story: Susan Conley at TedxDirigo,” YouTube, June 28, 2012.