Neuroscience and Storytelling

Every human culture and society on earth values storytelling. It’s how we passed on our traditions and heritage for generations, around campfires and at social gatherings, before reading and writing were common skills.

We teach our children through stories. We express grand concepts and visions through stories. We connect through stories.

So, if you are trying to communicate and build a connection with your audience it’s important to understand what happens in our brain when we tell stories, how others react to them and why they resonate.

On the very simplest level, our brains like stories because a clear narrative helps to cut through distractions. In our world of media bombardment and messaging noise … a good story will capture our attention.

When we see or hear a story, our brain neurons will fire in the same patterns as that of the storyteller. This is known as “neural coupling”or “mirroring” which actives parts of our brain that allow us to convert the story into our own ideas and experience.

According to research by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson, these processes occur across numerous areas of the brain and can create a shared contextual ‘mental-model’ of the situation being described. The motor cortex, frontal cortex and sensory cortex all ‘fire-up’ to engage in the acts of both story creation and story processing.

In the anticipation and resolution of a story we see releases of dopamine – which is a significant part of how feel pleasure. This dopamine release also acts on the brain in such a way as to help us recall the story more accurately later.

We have all experienced feeling part of a story, involved in the action and emotionally engaged. It is only natural to imagine ourselves in the same situation and empathise with the protagonists.

For businesses, the use of stories to engage our ideal clients should not be underestimated.  Carmine Gallo ( who has written several books on communication) has interviewed many business leaders about how storytelling can improve organizations which are summarised in his book The Storyteller’s Secret. In it Ben Horowitz, co-founder of large venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, states that “the most underrated skill in business is storytelling”.

Richard Branson has stated, “entrepreneurs who cannot tell a story will never be successful.”

Telling a good story

How can you use stories to build business? And how can we tell better more engaging stories?

Here are three of tips:

1. Draw people in:

We’ve probably all been to a deathly lecture or two in our time so we all understand just how bored and disconnected we feel when we are not engaged.

I recall doing my A levels and having a truly uninspiring History of Art tutor (I don’t recall his name – which says a lot!). We sat in a darkened room with slides, rhythmically projected in front of us and his low monotone drone of dates and facts. It was too dark to take notes properly so it was hard to use some of the established techniques for helping to engage with a lecturer’s content. Most of the students eventually ended up falling asleep. Every week the tutor bored his students to sleep and he never thought to do anything different to try and keep people either engaged or awake.

I can contrast that with other lecturers I encountered who were passionate, dynamic and vibrant. They moved around, varied the pace of their presentation and interjected stories from their own lives and the lives of the artists they were teaching about. I can recall one of my teachers specifically – I remember his lessons still, like a movie playing in my mind. He was physically tall and thin and looked a little like John Cleese. He used this fact to his advantage – acting like John Cleese, he mimicked famous Monty Python skits, doing funny walks and voices and told us stories to root the facts into narratives and real-life situations.

Perhaps you have had to sit through a data-heavy presentation and found yourself nodding off. I’m not suggesting data is not important. At S2 design we use data as an integral part of our process, but with a little effort, it can usually be presented in an interesting way.

Most people need context to fully grasp what is being communicated. So using stories to illustrate what the data means is an easy win.

A good deal of the best storytelling falls within a framework known as coherence. Each idea builds on and reinforces related concepts, adding layer-on-layer. Coherence helps us focus and cut through any noise to the key factors and to keep focus on those key points.

2. Make it visual: 

Our brains will process an image in as little as 13 miliseconds. That’s 75 frames per second in cinema terms. Studies have also shown that, in general, we tend to retain more of what we see than what we hear or read.

Incorporating visual aids and charts, when possible, will make your narrative stronger and ‘stickier’ for the audience – but being visual is harder than it sounds. (Perhaps silly walks and doing unexpected movements have their place?)

We’ve probably all also experienced ‘death-by-powerpoint’. Where the slides being shown add little or nothing to the spoken text – and the speaker simply ends up reading what’s shown on the slides aloud.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of this one myself when I’ve not had time to prepare properly for a presentation).

In this context, visual aids need to add to the experience not simply present the same information as text on the screen with a bolted-on picture.

Alternatively, have you ever been in a room where the telly is on but you can’t see the screen? Or a movie that suddenly drops into pitch blackness while all you hear is the audio – maybe the sound of people fighting or struggling? The latter example is purposefully done to raise our anxiety levels. Not knowing what is happening, and having to try and comprehend from the audio clues alone, plays with our minds.

Scriptwriters are some of the most talented storytellers around but they are writing for that specific medium. If there is no picture we need more information to formulate any reasonable idea of what is happening.

Whether through words or visuals, stories that create a rich scene help us process faster and result in us becoming more engaged, which also helps us recall the content more effectively.

3. Generate insights: 

The most impactful stories leave us understanding something more deeply than we did before.

Research has found that organizations should design learning programs that maximize the insights that participants generate themselves. The epiphany moments, the realisation, is far more impactive than the presentation of ‘external’ information, facts and data.

In these studies, insight was identified as that moment when we transition from “I don’t understand this” to the “Aha!” revelation.

How can we use this work in our daily work life?

Using storytelling in our business communications is essential. We probably all use case studies and testimonials, but sometimes we are too factual – too quick to get to business.

Having two-way conversations increases reflection. Raises a sense of relatedness in our brains, and builds connections.

Social media is a great way to use stories. Stories of the impact of our work. Stories about experiences we’ve had and things we’ve encountered.

Obviously, we have to ensure our clients and colleagues don’t object to us sharing stories they may feature in. And, as ever, we have to be mindful of data security.

Best-practice advice says that we should allow the narrative the develop and breathe. Explain the history and create context. Explain what happened, how it happened, what you did, how you helped, and how things improved – or maybe didn’t! After all, failure can be a compelling story too and overcoming failure is often the basis of some of the best stories.  These techniques will all help others relate to the story you tell and understand what they can expect if they choose to work with you.

There is power in stories. Tell stories, stories work.

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