Tell Stories to Influence People

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
5 min readSep 27, 2021
Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

We like to think of ourselves as rational animals swayed by good reasoning and solid evidence. But in reality, most people find emotional connection far more compelling than facts. And emotional connection doesn’t live in the world of science and data; it lives in storytelling.

As much as it pains me to say this as a scientist, your communication is likely to be more influential if you spend less time describing evidence and more time crafting a relatable narrative.

Comic from Jake Likes Onions

The evolution of storytelling

Every human culture on Earth uses storytelling. But why is it so ubiquitous?

In 2017, researchers visited an indigenous hunter-gatherer community in the Philippines called the Agta. They first asked members of the community to share some stories they frequently told each other.

All of the stories the Agta described were about social behavior, and they typically involved humanized characters cooperating in some form. Here’s one of their stories, as reported in the research paper:

“There is a dispute between the sun (male) and the moon (female) to illuminate the sky. After a fight, where the moon proves to be as strong as the sun, they agree in sharing the duty — one during the day and the other during the night.”

The Agta use this story to communicate a lesson of cooperation and equality between the sexes. Similarly, most hunter-gatherer stories around the world (~70%) are designed to teach social norms.

Storytelling among the Agta people correlated with actual cooperation. Agta camps with larger proportions of good storytellers performed more cooperatively in social experiments than camps with fewer storytellers. And when researchers asked Agta people about who they most wanted to live with in their communities, skilled storytellers were two times more popular than less skilled storytellers.

In fact, Agta people wanted to live with skilled storytellers even more than they wanted to live with people who were good at fishing, which is a highly valuable skill in Agta communities. The…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: