Imagine that you’re asked one of the following questions:
- What did you do at the weekend?
- How was your journey home last night?
- How was work today?
Each of these simple questions elicits a story in response. As the author and narrator of that story you’ll infuse your answer with brushstrokes of detail to paint a picture for the listener that brings it to life.
Storytelling forms part of the very fabric of human existence.
From the make-believe of our childhood to the misunderstood music of our teenage years, and the daydreams and nightmares of our adult lives, stories are our constant companions.
In a world where we the number of marketing messages that we’re exposed to every day is in the thousands, the most powerful – and memorable – advertising doesn’t simply inform but illustrates through stories where product is hero, or makes you a hero.
From the campaign trail to the courtroom, and the news studio to the boardroom, we don’t consume stories so much as participate in their telling, such is our hunger for them. In the words of the author Jonathan Gottschall, we are soaked to the bone in story.
Whilst art is beautiful, subjective value must be built on an understanding of outcome and its achievement. For this we need to understand the science that underlies our relationship with storytelling in order to truly maximize its potential as a communications tool.
So, what is the basis for the argument of the power of storytelling, beyond a sense of familiarity and a gut instinct that we need to engage with people emotionally, as well as rationally? How do stories engage with our brains to change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors?
‘Understanding a story is ultimately about understanding the human mind.’ Jonathan Gottschall
Tension and attention – the story of empathy and oxytocin
Even the most reclusive of us has to acknowledge that as social creatures we depend on others for our happiness and survival – and it is that social interaction that holds the key to understanding the science of stories.
Professor Paul J. Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain.
Our brains produce oxytocin when people trust or are kind to us, and it motivates cooperation with others, by enhancing our ability to experience others’ emotions – empathy. Simply put, empathy allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation – it puts us in their shoes.
From a storytelling perspective, we as audience are locked into a reciprocal arrangement with the author – it is their words that lie dormant, brought to life by our own imaginations as we empathize with the characters we observe.
Want your employees to feel what you feel? Tell a human story that creates tension and holds their attention.
Further studies by Professor Zak highlighted two crucial points:
Whether delivered face-to-face or in film, character-driven stories do consistently cause our brains to produce oxytocin. If a story is able to sustain attention by creating tension, attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.
So, character-driven stories cause our brains to produce oxytocin, enhancing our feelings of empathy. But the best stories go further, creating tension to keep our attention, and in doing so, draw us further in, to the point where we’re actively mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the characters. In our waking – and sleeping – hours our brains fire in response to the fiction we consume, responding to a myriad of stimuli. Stories are our life simulators.
And when mapping brain activity – we can actually see the physiological impact of stories.
“When we watch Clint Eastwood get mad on film, our brains look angry too; when the scene is sad, our brains also look sad” – Jonathan Gottschall
Organisational stories – the triumph of transcendence over transaction
How do you like to think about what your organization does? Does it make widgets or does it enhance your customers’ lives? We are substantially more motivated by the transcendent purpose of an organisation (how it improves lives), than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services).
This is where a story works so well – we’re attracted to stories of transcendent purpose. Once we empathize with the pain our customer experiences, so too will we feel the pleasure of its resolution, especially if the story depicts the heroes who worked to reduce suffering or struggle, or to produce joy. When the story is told right, we take every step with the characters.
There is an undeniable art to the act of writing. Words may be born on paper but to live as prose they require life to be breathed into them. This is particularly the case in a business environment, where an engaging argument or emotive description requires a skilled author and incubation in a story to survive
This setting illustrates another key point of effective storytelling – our need for jeopardy.
Here are two versions of a description of the early days of a business; you pick which one is more engaging and memorable.
One day, Jane had an idea for a business. Her idea was simple but no-one else had thought of it. She told her friends about it and they thought it was a great idea, as did her bank manager. Within days she’d acquired the funding to start her business. A month later she was producing her first products, and thanks to her website, they sold as quickly as she could make them. Customers wanted more and each month she found herself making greater and greater profits. Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength and has been the market leader since day 1.
One day, Jane had an idea for a business. Her idea was simple but not everyone shared her belief. Pitch after pitch, bank after bank, no-one seemed to believe in Jane’s vision. Eventually Jane realized that she would have to make her idea real herself. She risked everything by remortgaging her house to raise the money she needed. The early days were hard, as she worked during the day and made her first products in the evening. Despite next to no sleep and placing everything on the line, the business began to grow, day-by-day, week-by-week. A year on, Jane has left her old job and now runs her own business full-time. It was a hell of a year but the future’s looking bright.
Which version of the same reality do you find more engaging? Which version would you find yourself telling others?
If we turn to stories, plays, films or music to escape our own lives, we certainly don’t look for an absence of the problems that plague our lives. Quite the opposite – it is the complication, yearning, jeopardy and triumph that we consume with such relish, as we live out life’s problems without personal consequence.
Every organization already has a story to tell that can engage its people – its own foundation legend. The stories of those who overcame adversity or persisted in their vision form the organizational DNA that is the foundation of its transcendent purpose.
A story of human struggle and eventual triumph will capture hearts by first attracting brains. Paul J. Zak.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Stories are organic, possess beating hearts, and are created by humans for humans.
Just as we are more than the sum of our organic parts, so too are stories. They are greater than the sum of their constituent parts; more than just an introduction, bridge, climax or conclusion. It may be possible to identify the components and commonalities of story, but it’s wrong to assume you can assemble a meaningful story simply by joining the components together. To do that is to replace the reader’s journey with a series of mechanistic movements. Don’t insult them by treating storytelling as a literary pick n’mix.
Why use stories as part of your communications?
- Stories are the most pervasive and persuasive method of communication that we share as humans
- We are hard-wired to respond to stories: we actively emphathise with the characters and if told well, our brains mimic the feelings of those characters.
- We crave problems – and their resolution – in stories. Good news only feels good to us if it follows something bad.
- Corporate storytelling has one of the greatest stories of all – the foundation legend.
Principles of good storytelling:
- Consider your audience — choose a framework and details that will best resonate with your listeners.
- Identify the moral or message your want to impart.
- Find inspiration in your life experiences.
- Assume you’re not a storyteller — you tell compelling stories everyday – you just might not realize it!
- Overwhelm your story with unnecessary details – add colour and context to bring things to life, but do it through artistry and not granularity
- Treat storytelling as an assembly line – you may understand the components that you need but just as we are more than the sum of our physical parts, so are stories. So don’t be lazy – breathe some life into them
Understand the science and artistry of the craft off storytelling and don’t be afraid to use it in a corporate context.
It adds humanity into what is all too often a world bereft of it.
Want to learn even more about storytelling? Here’s some further reading:
- “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling” (Harvard Business Review)
- “How Stories Change the Brain” (University of California, Berkley)
- The Storytelling Animal (Jonathan Gottschall)
- The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell’s work on the archetypal heroes and myths shared by world religions and traditions