The Power of Story in the Digital Age

by Catherine Ramsdell

16 June 2009

From the stop-motion animated film, The Sex Life of Robots, by
Michael Sullivan 

Losing Memorization / Remembering Storytelling

Stories were (and still are) a kinder, gentler way to communicate hard truths and teach lessons. Equally important today, stories are easy to remember. Most people probably remember the Aesop’s Fable about the tortoise and the hare and its message concerning the dangers of being overly confident. Or how “Green Eggs and Ham” teaches children not to be afraid of trying something new.  People remember these stories and their messages even though they may not have read them for years. Do they remember the facts (or factoids) they Google for this long? Probably not, but maybe it’s okay if people don’t memorize things the way generations past did.  After all, is it the best use of our time to spend hours memorizing things that can easily be looked up? And what is more important for students to remember: the story of Anne Frank or the dates of the Battle of the Bulge? 

Politicians, public relations experts, educators, executive trainers, and corporate gurus are learning what poets, novelists, playwrights, and literature majors have known for centuries—few things are as powerful as a well-told story.

Also important, while stories are not just facts, the best ones often contain facts or true knowledge.  In their book, The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster, and Win More Business, Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman state that “a story is a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.”  This definition certainly applies to many traditional stories. Most people who enjoy reading (or going to the theatre or watching films) can list stories that have somehow changed their lives (or at least their perspective on life).

From Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List,  stories have the power to influence, motivate, and inspire. But this definition can also be applied to less traditional stories. The video story Augie’s Quest on the website What Kind of World do You Want provides a good example. This video uses facts along with traditional storytelling elements—heroes, a villain, narratives, and emotions—to tell a story and raise awareness about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Advertising gurus have long recognized the power of a good story. Take the original Macintosh Computer commercial that aired during the 1984 Superbowl and has since been viewed thousands of time on YouTube. In just about 60 seconds, this commercial, playing off the George Orwell book 1984, uses a story to show how the Macintosh Computer would set Americans free and why the real 1984 would not be like Orwell’s 1984

The commercial shows a dystopia: a gray world where Big Brother is seen (and heard) on every television screen. A woman in vibrant red shorts runs through the crowd and hurls a hammer at the largest screen, destroying it and silencing Big Brother. The commercial then closes with the words “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” It’s an advertisement, and as such, its primary purpose is to sell, but this advertisement also demonstrates the power of the story. Not only do many credit this commercial with saving the Apple brand, but it’s still remembered, discussed, analyzed, and cited over 25 years after its initial debut. 

As the Macintosh Computer advertisement and Augie’s Quest video indicate, stories are quickly spreading beyond their traditional stomping grounds. No longer are stories just parts of novels, films, or plays. Take, for example, the book Storytelling for Grantseekers by Cheryl Clarke, first published in 2001 with a second edition published in 2009. This book, as the title suggests, explains why stories can be valuable additions to grants and illustrates how to successfully incorporate stories into a grant.  Other books, such as The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of the Business Narrative or Squirrel Inc.: A Fable about Leadership through Storytelling, indicate that storytelling is moving into the corporate world as well.  While these types of stories may not be high literary art forms, they use many of the same narrative elements found in the works of master storytellers such as William Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe.

Reading Robot found on

Reading Robot found on

Politicians, public relations experts, educators, executive trainers, and corporate gurus are learning what poets, novelists, playwrights, and literature majors have known for centuries-few things are as powerful as a well-told story.  Suddenly, storytelling is a valuable skill in the corporate world.

And this is part of the beauty of the story-it takes skill to tell a story successfully. The average fifth grader can use a search engine, find a few facts, and plop them into bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. Not everyone can tell a good story, but those who can now possess a valuable commodity.  Storytelling isn’t just about Googling or data; it’s about putting all sorts of different things—words, images, characters, actions, and yes, even facts—together to create a cohesive whole that imparts meaning.

Of course, stories aren’t just about the storytellers; stories need audiences and the best audiences aren’t passive, mindless receptacles. The best audiences are active participants in storytelling process. They must read (or listen), analyze or interpret. They might even need to use their imaginations to bring characters to life or to answer the magical “what if” question.

What if society had the technologies found in I, Robot, or what if World War II would have ended differently (The Man in the High Castle)?  Even workplace stories, such as the ones found in grants, can spark the imagination. People imagine a world without cancer or without starving children and fund projects that can bring about these changes. 

At the end of the day, it’s easy to argue that people aren’t as smart as they used to be because they can’t rattle off as many facts as their grandparents or great-grandparents could.  Some seem to think that Google and the Internet are making people less intelligent.  But it’s important to remember that while certain skills, such as memorization skills, may be dwindling, other skills are popping up in their place.


Catherine Ramsdell, Ph.D., is a Professor of Professional Writing at SCAD-Atlanta. She teaches a wide variety of classes including Composition, Writing for New Media, and Classics of Science Fiction.

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