In Praise of Storytelling, and its Illuminating Vignettes


Tell me a story—a tale spun with intriguing events and characters, the actions of which are unpredictable, human, unique and unexpected—and I will listen, intently, mind and heart open to the deeper meaning lying beneath. Rattle off facts and numbers— diluted experiences seized by barcodes, cookies and analytics—and I will wonder about the stories and faces hiding behind the veil of quantification.

In the sea of data in which we swim, and the reportage that comes with it, it is no surprise that we yearn for narratives, or as Apple’s recent campaign asked, “What Will Your Verse Be?”

The ad is appealing, not solely because it’s poetic, and visually stunning, but because it nudges each and every one of us to imagine what our individual purpose is, what our personal contributions might be, in a world interconnected. Stories are seductive because they’re each unique, like a fingerprint (and thus intriguing) yet not so unique that they’re not familiar, and lessons for our own lives. A story about a woman grieving the death of her parent lost to a rare form of cancer may entice us to read more on the little-known illness but more importantly, we hold on to the narrative because of what it tells us about survival, in the midst of tragedy. Stories are both private and shared expressions.

A doctor, in defending benefits of storytelling, recently shared his observations of this form in the medical field. In “Why Doctors Need Stories,” Dr. Peter Kramer says:

“In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails.”

But he swims against the tide, and is an advocate for the anecdote. Stories, he found, when included in his own book, engendered sympathy from readers:

“… readers wrote to say that they’d recognized themselves. Seeing that they were not alone gave them hope. Encouragement is another benefit of case description, familiar to us in this age of memoir…vignettes can do more than illustrate and reassure. They convey what doctors see and hear, and those reports can set a research agenda.”

Dr. Kramer continues:

“Beyond its roles as illustration, affirmation, hypothesis-builder and low-level guidance for practice, storytelling can act as a modest counterbalance to a straitened understanding of evidence.”

With the rise of data collection, monitoring and evaluation, our culture has become quite good at standardizing, organizing and distilling information. Sweeping studies across vast e-scapes of data may paint the big picture, but in doing so, do we lose sight of its smaller and significant parts? Storytelling, singular narratives buried in the mine of information, connects us to other human beings. It is one of the challenges of our time—to usher in an age defined by large-scale data collection, and keep alive this form—the human voice of experience.

Photo credit: Ninha Morandini via photopin cc