The Power of a Good Story

There are 39 million Filipinos between the ages 18 and 35. There are 40 million Filipinos on Facebook. The hashtag #AlDubEBTamangPanahon got over 41 million tweets, setting a new Twitter world record. And we only need around 20 million votes to elect the next president of the Philippines.

How do we harness all that energy being poured by Filipinos into social media to change the country? By telling and sharing good stories that connect people to one another.

In this Information Age when everything you want to know can be “Googled,” there are two ways to share knowledge. You can push information out or you can pull people in with a story.

As marketing guru and author Seth Godin said: “Don’t tell me facts, tell me a story instead.”

Studies have shown the many ways storytelling affects the brain. A story activates parts in the brain that allows the listener to turn the story into their own ideas and experiences through a process called neural coupling. Through mirroring, listeners will not only experience similar brain activity to each other, but also to the speaker. The brain also releases dopamine into the system when it experiences an emotionally-charged event, making it easier to remember and with greater accuracy. A well-told story can engage many additional areas, including motor cortex, sensory cortex, and frontal cortex.

Good stories compel people to change the way they feel, think, act, and behave. Stories demand an emotional investment. They pique and hold interest. They bring energy to the message and they cause people to take action.

There are five common elements of good storytelling. First, it is simple. Good stories are easy to understand. Second, it is emotional. Good stories make you feel. Third, it is truthful. The storyteller believes it and is honest with himself or herself and with the audience. Fourth, it is real. Good stories are first-hand experiences the teller actually witnessed. And fifth, it is valid. A good story works for any audience whether it’s for one person or for one million people.

A great example of how a good story engaged many people in social media and led to an action that made a big difference is the story of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina migrant worker convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia. The hashtag #MaryJane was among the highest trending topics in April this year. It evolved into a campaign #SaveMaryJane and she was spared from execution while eight others, including an Indonesian, convicted for the same crime, were executed by firing squad. The hashtag then became #MaryJaneLives. It is what we might call “saved by a hashtag.”

It engaged people because it was a story that resonated with many others. Mary Jane, a high school dropout and former domestic worker in Dubai, who left after an attempted rape, was duped into smuggling 2.6 kg of heroin into Indonesia. There are many women around the world who have similar stories. But Mary Jane was saved because someone cared enough to tell her story and shared it with others.

The #AlDub phenomenon is the same thing. The Eat Bulaga Kalyeserye captured the hearts of Filipinos everywhere because they tell everyday stories of Filipino families. They touched overseas Filipinos who feel homesick. It has all the elements that make a good Pinoy story — romance, generational conflict, comedy, drama, musical, memorable dialogues and quotable quotes. It connected with the Pinoy heart and it moved millions of Pinoys to form real and virtual communities around it.

Now why can’t we get Filipinos to care as much about politics and economics? Because there are no good stories with these themes that move us to action. All we get are “praise releases” that do not ring true. Or boring statistics that do not make our hearts flutter in excitement. Or propaganda designed to trick us into signing up to volunteer for other people’s personal agenda or buying something we do not really need.

If you want us to connect, share with us a great story. If you want our attention, be real and stop deceiving us. If you want our vote, listen to our stories and show us you care by doing what needs to be done.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, October 29, 2015