Jonathan Gottschall

Speech Topics

In business, storytelling is all the rage. Without a compelling story–we are told–our product, idea, or personal brand, is dead on arrival. People aren’t moved to action by spreadsheets, they’re moved by emotion. Our ability to connect emotionally depends on the quality of our stories.

In this talk, Jonathan Gottschall leads a guided tour through the literature library and science lab to show why storytelling really is a uniquely powerful form of persuasive jujitsu. This talk zooms out to reveal the whole big picture of story’s role in human life, and then zooms in on specific business challenges, and how thinking like a storyteller can help us solve them. People are storytelling animals, and the surest way to change one mind or the whole world always begins with “Once upon a time.”

Humans are the storytelling animal. We thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens: murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story. But the addiction runs deeper than we think. We can walk away from our books and our screens, but not from story. We dream, fantasize, and socialize in stories. Story infiltrates every aspect of how we live and think. Did you know that fiction enhances our empathy? Did you know that stories have brought on wars, inspired atrocities, and driven massive social change? Did you know that we all boldly fictionalize the stories of our own lives? In this talk, Jonathan Gottschall leads a whirligig tour of a new science of stories—why we shape them, and how they shape us.

When he got in his first fight, Jonathan Gottschall was a 39 year old English professor and a lifelong master of the arts of flight, not fight. In this talk—based on his book The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. Jonathan Gottschall draws on his own wild journey into cage fighting in order to tell a bigger story about the history and science of violence. Unrestrained violence is bad, but structured forms of aggression can be a surprisingly good thing. These showdowns often seem ridiculous and sometimes end in tragedy. But they serve a vital function: they help us work out conflicts and thrash out hierarchies while minimizing danger and social chaos.

Writers are like wizards: they wave their pens over paper and create magic spells that project us into other times, places, and minds. So why do most students hate to write so much? In this inspirational talk, Gottschall locates the problem not in the students, but in pervasive writing myths and in boredom: students are usually forced to write about the professor’s passion, rather than being pushed to find their own. Gottschall seeks to excite students about learning and writing by describing the hard struggles of great writers, and by leading them through the ups and downs of producing his own book The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. Gottschall takes students, from the conception of his idea, through research on the science of violence, to his own cage fight, and his equally fierce battles with writer’s block. Along the way he draws surprising parallels between the ecstasy and the agony of fighting and writing.


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Jonathan Gottschall writes books at the intersection of science and art. He is a leading figure in a new movement to bridge the divide between the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities. His most recent work, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection), draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology and biology to show how storytelling has evolved as a fundamental human instinct.

Jonathan is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania and blogs about the mysteries of storytelling at Psychology Today. While his Ph.D. is in English, his main dissertation advisor was the prominent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and he splits his academic writing between scientific and literary journals. He has also written for New Scientist, The Boston Globe, Seed Magazine, The Huffington Post, NPR and BBC Radio, and the blogs of The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company. His work has been featured in outlets like The New York Times, Nature, Scientific American, Oprah Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Described by Steven Pinker as “a brilliant young scholar, Jonathan is the author or editor of six books, including The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. Gottschall lives with his wife and two young daughters in Washington, PA.

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