Participants tell their stories at the StoryCorps booth located in World Trade Center path station in New York.
Rob Lowell

Storytelling’s having quite the moment. The power behind a good narrative? It’s all in your brain.


Let’s get beyond “storytelling” as a buzzword. Marketers toss it around with abandon these days. Fine. Yawn. Whatever. This story isn’t about that. It’s about the essence of storytelling. The person-to-person connections that well-told stories build. The things that happen in your brain when you’re on either side of a storytelling.

“Stories are our ultimate democracy, in the sense that everyone has them. Everyone has a deep need to tell them and to listen to them. They define us. They go across borders, boundaries, gender and their age — no matter what it happens to be,” says Colum McCann, author of novels including TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. McCann recently added a new title to his life: chairman and co-founder of Narrative 4, an organization that hopes to build “radical empathy” — and a better world — by bringing kids living in tough conditions together to share their stories with each other.

“Often people who are disadvantaged don’t get a chance to tell their story and don’t get a chance to know how valuable their story is,” McCann says. “We kicked off Narrative 4 in the hope that kids would learn to exchange one another’s stories. Not just to tell each other stories but walk in each other’s shoes.”

A person would have to be an extreme crank to deny the power of storytelling. But why does it work so well? Is McCann being too pie-in-the-sky in his belief that storytelling can lead to a “radical empathy”? Why did literary luminaries and other A-listers and big thinkers, from Sting to authors Salman Rushdie and Firoozeh Dumas, sign right on when McCann approached them for help?

Actually, the idea behind Narrative 4 is spot-on. The proof is inside you, literally. It’s in your brain.