Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

In Conversation with Will Storr

In Conversation with Will Storr

We spoke to novelist Will Storr about why storytelling is fundamental to how we think, act and behave.
Photography by Sanne Glasbergen
17th Mar 2022

Novelist, award-winning journalist and author of The Science of Storytelling Will Storr talks to our Co-founder, Adam Penny, to get to the bottom of why storytelling is fundamental to purposeful business.

Beginning with 2017’s Selfie: How The West Became Self-Obsessed, Will has been mapping our cultural development from Ancient Greece to the modern day in order to understand what makes us tick. His latest book, The Status Game, delves into how our drive for status can dictate our worldview and behaviour.

Adam: Thanks so much for joining us. We feel connected to your work on storytelling and identity because they’re both at the core of how we think. In The Science of Storytelling you explore the fundamentals of how storytelling has shaped humanity’s development. Why are humans so compelled to tell stories?

Will: Humans are a species of ape that have solved the problem of cooperation. How did we ever figure out how to work together? The answer is that our brains are storytellers. And in its infant form, storytelling was gossip.

We tell morally drenched stories about each other and if you emerge as a useful person – essentially a good character – you rise in status. If you end up as a bad character, then you’re in danger of humiliation, ostracisation and the ultimate sanction: execution.

“Our storytelling brains are not interested in finding out what the truth is, they’re interested in defending the story that we tell about the world.”

Adam: What I loved about The Science of Storytelling is you acknowledge that there’s a social construct around stories, but you also emphasise the incessant stories we tell inside our own heads. We tell different stories depending on how we’re feeling. Are we dependent on the stories we tell ourselves?

Will: In short, yes. The storytelling function is always going on, and if it isn’t, we struggle. We don’t want to get out of bed because we don’t feel heroic anymore, the world becomes unconquerable and we can end up feeling like we’re always going to fail. It’s good for us to believe these slightly illusionary stories that tell us we’re amazing and our enemies are terrible. That story is what gets us out of bed in the morning and it allows us to thrive; the mind is a sense-maker as well as a storyteller. It’s incredibly important. But we have to remember that it can also be dangerous, because it’s never wholly true.

“That story is what gets us out of bed in the morning and it allows us to thrive; the mind is a sense-maker as well as a storyteller.”

Adam: I agree – from an individual’s perspective, their story, and therefore worldview, is the right one. Do you think conflict arises from a person’s worldview being challenged?

Will: Our storytelling brains aren’t interested in truth, they’re interested in defending the story that we tell about the world. When we encounter people that threaten that story, and therefore our status in the world, our storytelling brain kicks into gear. It starts separating the good guys from the bad guys and maximising the devilish deeds of people we believe have wronged us. We’re very good at justifying our actions.

I’m also very interested in the idea of a sacred flaw in a character. Everyone’s got a flawed idea about themselves or the world that has become sacred to them, and they arrange their entire life around that belief. Often, a good story happens when we see that sacred belief being challenged – for example, Jaws.

Everyone thinks it’s about a shark, but it’s actually about a police chief who’s terrified of the water. The shark forces him to engage with the water. The very last thing you see in the film is not the shark being blown up, but the police chief saying, “I used to be scared of the water.”

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Adam: Yes – Jaws might seem popular because it’s got a killer shark and suspense and so on, but really it’s compelling because of the characters. You mentioned how defensive our storytelling brain can become when our status is threatened. How do stories and status contribute to creating our identity?

Will: The stories we consume can be incredibly powerful in shaping who we are and who we want to be. Gossip, the original form of storytelling, has two purposes: reputation – working out who people are and whether they’re good or bad – and strategy, which is learning how to become successful. How do I become amazing? How do I become the person that I want to be? Stories, particularly true ones, become magnetic because we all want to know the answer.

We tell a story about who we are inside our heads, but ultimately we want other people to believe that story in order to feel good about ourselves. That happens when we are connected in coalitions of like-minded people, no matter what form it might come in – company, religion, political party and so on.

Adam: Storytelling is the bedrock of communication for businesses, and we’ve been expressing purpose through stories for 20 years. Is something specific that led you to explore storytelling on a deeper level?

“The stories we consume can be incredibly powerful in shaping who we are and who we want to be.”

Will: I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, and fundamentally that comes from a deep interest in how people work. In fact, I spend a lot of time worrying about other people: if I’ve upset them, what they think about me – I’ve got that neurosis.

I suppose that is the one thing that connects all of my books: trying to understand how people work, and ultimately, the idea that our identity itself is really just a story.

Adam: Let’s talk about purpose. Viktor Frankl believed there’s an inherent need for purpose and meaning in life – you call it goal striving in your book.

Will: Exactly. We’ve evolved to seek connection and status, and for me, they are the two driving forces of human nature. That’s what purpose is – we’ve evolved to seek the acclaim of people. That may sound cynical, but I think it’s the opposite: we’ve evolved a psychological mechanism that rewards us when we act virtuously.

When we do something selfless and amazing, we feel good about ourselves and we’re rewarded with status. Without status, I don’t think there would be progress.

Photography by Sanne Glasbergen

Adam: Do you think there’s a cultural shift away from dominance and success as a sign of status, toward virtue as a sign of status?

Will: It’s definitely changing. Through the neoliberal era, success was the main cultural story that businesses told. But post-financial crisis, post-Blm, post-#MeToo, there’s been a shift towards virtue stories. And we’re very good at sniffing out authenticity.

We’ve been trying to manipulate each other with stories for tens of thousands of years, so we’ve become very good at detecting when something isn’t genuine. We need to show virtue, but we must be authentic about it.

Adam: I agree – I’ve seen success and dominance characterise the stories that businesses have told in the past. Now in an era defined by virtue, the danger has become disingenuous-ness. How do we find the balance between authenticity and attractiveness?

“We’ve evolved to seek connection and status, and for me, they are the two driving forces of human nature.”

Will: My next book is going to be a business version of The Science of Storytelling, so it’ll be looking specifically at this question. There’s definitely a tension there. You have to ask, “What is this business for?” Virtue isn’t always found on the highest possible global scale. You can always find good stories to tell; your business doesn’t have to save the world, it just has to fulfil its particular purpose. 

There’s authentic virtue everywhere. Corporations are not seen as purely as money-making machines anymore. The mistake is thinking that they need to tell huge stories about how they’re saving the world, when actually making a small difference to clients or employees is enough – and importantly, it’s far more authentic.

Adam: We believe that we can change actions by changing the narrative we tell about ourselves. Do you agree – can stories really change beliefs and actions?

Photography by Sanne Glasbergen

Will: Yes, there’s a lot of scientific research informing compelling ideas about how storytelling is key to communication, influencing and changing minds for the better. So it’s a really interesting time for storytelling.

Fundamentally, story is about communicating with emotions rather than facts. The stories that really engage people over the centuries are ones with hope. These are the stories that people want to feel part of. These are the groups that people want to join. These are the companies that people want to connect with.

Adam: So storytelling itself becomes a collaborative art of creation, reception and connection. Can we harness that process to help build a better future?

Will: Yes – the future needs to be collaborative, which is achievable because by nature we are collaborative. The main narrative we have today comes from identity politics, and it can be a negative story of division. We are a collaborative species. Through collaboration, we can get past the obsession of asking, what group do you belong to?

However, as we discussed earlier, it’s difficult to change how someone experiences the world, because you are engaging in a battle with their storytelling brain. You’ve got to understand their worldview and tell a story that connects with their values. You influence people by telling stories that they can connect to – it’s about finding the right story for the right people.