The underrated skill that can benefit every area of your life

Here's what storytelling can do for you

(Image credit: (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))

What's my vote for the most underrated skill?


Being a great storyteller has immense value across five key areas of your life. It's a shame we don't require it in schools.

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Here's the research behind how the art of storytelling can benefit you — and how you can get better at it.

1) Relationship

John Gottman is one of the leading researchers on what makes relationships succeed or fail.

He can listen to a couple for five minutes and determine, with 91 percent accuracy, whether they'll divorce. He was featured in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink.

What does he think is the best diagnostic tool for checking how good a relationship is?

Ask them to tell their story.

I've found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage's history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it's a sign that the marriage needs help. [The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work]


Either they emphasize their good times and make light of the rough spots, or they accentuate their failures and not their successes. Likewise, they either underscore their partner's positive traits in favor of their more annoying characteristics (cherishing), or they do the opposite (trashing). [What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal]

Here's more on the importance of your relationship story.

2) Career

In the Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback give advice on crafting a good resume.

Bullet points of achievements are lovely, yes, but the key part of a resume that has impact is the story you make it tell.

The process of putting together a resume is as valuable as the product because it entails drafting your story. Everything in the resume must point to one goal — which, of course, is the climax of the story you're telling. [Harvard Business Review]

Here's more on storytelling in your career.

3) Communication

Think of your recent conversations. The primary way we communicate is through stories.

Sure, facts and statistics are great. But when people hear presentations what do they remember?

The stories.

When students are asked to recall the speeches, 63 percent remember the stories. Only 5 percent remember any individual statistic. [Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die]

Here's more on communicating memorably.

4) Parenting

Who is most likely to say "Tell me a story"? Children.

Stories are the way we educate them and the way they learn. And this isn't mere tradition.

Research shows that telling stories kids can relate to may dramatically increase their desire to learn.

Students told a story about a high math achiever who shared their birthday persevered 65 percent longer on hard problems during a math test.

To the astonishment of Walton and Cohen, the motivation level for the students in the shared-birthday group did not just nudge up, or even jump up: it soared. The matched students persevered on the insoluble puzzle a full 65 percent longer than those in the nonmatched group. They also reported significantly more positive attitudes toward math and greater optimism about their abilities. [Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success]

Here's more on the educational value of stories.

5) Happiness and meaning

Whether it's formal religion or just your own idea of life, meaning comes from the stories you tell yourself about what happens every day.

Those stories make up a big part of whether or not you are happy.

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an "incoherent story," an "inadequate narrative account of oneself," or "a life story gone awry." Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. And it works. [The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human]

For better or worse, you become the stories you tell yourself — so choose wisely the narratives that shape your life.

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, explains:

…The idea is that if we want to change people's behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world — the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do… As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." [American Psychological Association]

Here's more on how storytelling is the key to happiness and meaning in life.

How to improve

Check out these books:

Don't have time for Amazon to deliver these?

Check out my interview with UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber.

He gives a powerful tip on how to instantly become a better storyteller.

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