The Power of Story

step ladder in library stack

Earlier this year, I was afforded the opportunity to hear filmmaker Jon Erwin talk about storytelling. His discussion of a concept I had never heard of before, called “emotional jamming,” is what stood out the most. “Emotional jamming,” as Erwin defined it, is how a narrative creates disorientation between one’s heart and head. This disorientation opens up the possibility for one to change their mind about a particular topic.

Shawshank Redemption is arguably my favorite movie of all-time. It is filled with “emotional jamming,” as the audience is forced to reconsider their views on such topics as prison reform, the abuse of power, and even biracial friendship. For instance, whatever one’s prior views towards incarceration may be, the film’s story creates disorientation on this topic: Andy Dufresne may be at Shawshank unjustly, but what about the gang that tortures Andy at the beginning of the film? Or, what are we to make about Red’s (Morgan Freeman) admission to guilt, and eventual release from prison after serving 40 years of a life service? Not to mention his, or Brooks Hatlen’s, lonely and challenging life on the outside after being released, or Red’s commentary on “rehabilitation.”

The power of Shawshank Redemption, or any film, lies in its ability to change the way we feel. As Erwin reminded the audience in his talk, people tend to make decisions emotionally, and then back up those decisions rationally. Thus, the true power of story is in its ability to tug on our emotions, and open us up to change. Shawshank Redemption is memorable for its ability to do this. And if you have seen the film, I suspect you can remember certain emotions you had watching the film just by remembering some of the scenes in the paragraph above.

As you probably have guessed already, I believe story-telling to be an absolutely critical aspect of leadership. The temptation for the leader, especially in vision-casting, is to begin by sharing all the facts about why whatever needs to change needs to change. If people tend to make decisions emotionally, shouldn’t we lead rather with storytelling and let the facts follow after? Please hear me, this doesn’t mean that the facts do not matter. They always do! But the power of facts is limited until people’s emotions have allowed them to be considered.

The power of story is in its ability to create the disorientation between the head and heart that is necessary for change to occur.

Therefore, as leaders we would be wise to use its power!