Storytelling in Wealth and Legacy

April 17, 2024
  • Private Banking
We look at the art and science of storytelling as an important tool for navigating wealth planning and family legacies.

At BBH, we believe that effective communication anchored deeply in the art of storytelling is a foundation of successful wealth planning.

We’ve previously explored why communicating values matters and the importance of sharing legacy stories with future generations. But what ingrains a story in our memory? Why do our brains harbor deep affection for stories? How have stories sculpted the evolution of society?

Drawing on the science behind storytelling, we explore its evolutionary significance and practical applications in nurturing enduring connections and enhancing your skills as a storyteller and communicator.

From the Beginning

As language evolved among early humans, it became more than just a tool for basic communication. Storytelling served as a critical evolutionary advantage, enabling our ancestors to share vital information about survival in ways that were both engaging and memorable. More than mere entertainment, these stories encoded the collective wisdom of the community, teaching valuable lessons, traditions, and morals to each new generation.

Through the art of storytelling, people were not just recounting their experiences; they were shaping the future of their communities, ensuring that critical information was preserved and disseminated across generations. While the fundamental nature of our struggles has evolved from the primal fight for survival, our reliance on storytelling endures, adapting to serve new purposes.

Today, we harness stories not just for entertainment or education, but also as a vital tool in preserving and conveying ideas we hope will live on for generations. To achieve this enduring impact, it's helpful to unravel the science behind storytelling and to understand the elements that render a narrative not just captivating, but unforgettable.

Storytelling as a Science

Neuroscientific research reveals that when we engage with a story, our brains don’t just passively process information; they embark on a journey, mirroring the emotions, experiences, and transformations of the characters. When we hear a story, several remarkable events can occur in our brains.

  • Storytellers’ and listeners’ brains synchronize. When someone hears a story, their neurons fire in the same pattern as the speaker’s brain. This is known as neural coupling, and it occurs because “mirror neurons” create a coherence between the speaker and their audience.
  • Listeners’ brains transport them into the story. When a person hears factual information, only two regions within their brain are activated. However, fMRI studies have demonstrated that when someone hears a story, many more areas of the brain light up. Scientists believe that this happens because the listener responds to the events in a story as if they were in the story, a process known as “narrative transport.”
  • Storytelling can fortify memories. The act of storytelling transforms abstract facts and concepts into vivid, relatable narratives, embedding them deeply within our cognitive architecture. Some scientists believe that “memory is a form of imagination” – an idea that highlights the profound overlap between these cognitive processes.
  • Storytelling can improve focus. Today, amidst a deluge of technological distractions, storytelling remains a tool for capturing attention. By engaging our imagination and emotions, effective storytelling commands our focus and offers a respite from the noise of our daily lives.

Perfecting the Art of Storytelling

Although it's rooted in solid scientific findings, storytelling is also an art form that demands more than mere technical expertise. It calls for a nuanced blend of sensitivity, intuition, and empathy for the human condition.

Narratives that encapsulate the trials, triumphs, and values of a family or individual offer a roadmap for future generations.

Good storytelling is an often underrecognized, but very useful, tool for business owners and anyone concerned with passing down their legacy and values to the next generation. Three illustrative examples of storytelling’s efficacy include:

  • Preserving Values Across Generations: The act of passing down a legacy is enriched and solidified through storytelling. Narratives that encapsulate the trials, triumphs, and values of a family or individual offer a roadmap for future generations. For many, storytelling is not merely a method of preservation but an act of imparting wisdom and inspiring a legacy that truly endures.
  • Engaging Emotionally for Memorable Messages: The most impactful stories are those that resonate emotionally, embedding themselves in the memory of the listener. Storytellers’ ability to weave emotional narratives around their values and experiences ensures that messages not only reach but also profoundly affect their intended audience, from family members to business associates.
  • Leveraging Storytelling in Strategic Decision-Making: Beyond its role in communication and legacy building, storytelling is a potent tool in business strategy and decision-making. A well-crafted story can illuminate the stakes, highlight the human element, and sway the course of negotiations or partnerships. For entrepreneurs and business leaders, refining storytelling skills can significantly influence their success and impact.

Mastering the following strategies can help those seeking to elevate their storytelling art.

  1. First, craft immersive visual narratives. To captivate and resonate with your audience, your story must paint a vivid picture that listeners can visualize and empathize with. A well-crafted narrative invites the listener to step into the shoes of the characters, experiencing the setting, emotions, and actions through a lens that feels almost tangible.

    Keep in mind that one of the hardest concepts for listeners to “fill in” themselves is character emotion. For example, spend less time in the story on minor details such as exact dates or locations, and more time explaining who you or others felt in the crux of the story. Those emotions, if delivered correctly, will resonate with your listener and be remembered long after you’ve concluded your tale.

  2. Second, emphasize a journey of change. Human brains are wired to respond to narratives of transformation and change. A compelling story typically follows a trajectory that begins with the status quo, introduces a conflict or challenge that disrupts this balance, and concludes with the protagonist finding a new equilibrium. This narrative arc is critical because it mirrors the journey of change we all experience, making the story inherently relatable and gripping.


When navigating the realms of wealth and legacy, these techniques transcend mere narrative tools. They're indispensable in imparting profound messages and fostering a deep appreciation for family heritage among upcoming generations. Simply listing family values, character strengths, and core virtues might seem efficient, but it falls short of creating lasting impact.

The key to making these concepts truly meaningful and memorable for the next generation lies in embedding them within compelling stories. This method does more than convey information; it connects with the foundational wiring of our brains, ensuring these ideals are not just learned, but felt and remembered.

Through stories, we don't just pass on knowledge — we inspire a living, breathing legacy that resonates with the very essence of our family's identity, leaving a lasting imprint on those who follow.

To learn more about why it’s important for people – especially business owners – to tell compelling stories, reach out to your BBH relationship team.

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