Storytelling may be the most important means of verbal communication that we have. Stories were the standard form of imparting knowledge from generation to generation for millennia. To this day, some of the best forms of entertainment: movies, novels, plays; are ones that tell a story. Children learn stories at an early age by their parents. We were born to narrate, and to be narrated to.
A key aspect of good stories is their coherence. Everything in the story contributes to the message the author wishes to impart. A case is built up, line upon line, until a solid, inevitable conclusion is reached. The aim of the storyteller is to build up evidence that convinces the reader; there should be no loose ends. Incongruence is disparaged. To tell a good story is to make it flow like water from source to sea. Coherence is the power of good storytelling.
In life, we tell stories all the time. We use the tools of the narrator to make our message heard, to compete for jobs, to seek enrichment. The best storytellers find tales that contribute to their narratives. If there is a jarring note, they try to write it out of the plot. There are many techniques to do this. Our stories create coherence, direction and conviction in a otherwise chaotic world.
Stories package life into digestible bites, but we all know that life is not so simple. Stories, by their very nature, are distortions of reality. They place greater weight on some incidents, facts, people, findings and opinions; while minimising the importance of other aspects of a situation. They gloss over complexities in the interest of maintaining attention. Two people can create totally different stories from exactly the same event. If we want to understand real events, we need to treat individual stories with great caution.
Stories are often central to the world-views of people. At the heart of all great political movements, religions, fads and management theories are narratives – ways of looking at the world that emphasise certain aspects while dismissing contradictory information. The filters are so great that people go to the grave convinced of their certainty, even when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.
We should be thankful that we possess narrative thinking, as it is our greatest communication tool. At the same time, we should mindful of its many weaknesses. There are occasions in life where simple narratives are not enough. There are situations where the distortion field erected by narration needs to be pulled down, so that we can understand reality as it is, faults, blemishes and all.
Fortunately, there is a mode of thinking that recognises the failures of the narrative. It accepts challenges head-on. It seeks to understand the biases that plague our patterns of thought. Through testing and experimentation, it matches our premises to reality. This type of thinking does not come naturally to us. We have only engaged with it, seriously and systematically, over the last 400 years. In that time, it has proven itself over and over again; allowing us to see things as they are, rather than how we think they should be. We have a name for this type of thinking.
We call it science.