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Why Your Brain Likes A Good Tale – The Science of Storytelling

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The human brain is wired for emotion, and we’ve spoken previously about how this can be used for effective pitches. Here, Doug delves deeper into the neuroscience of why your brain can’t resist an emotionally charged story.

Why do you think Malcolm Gladwell is so successful? All three of his books, The Tipping Point, Blink and most recently Outliers – The Story of Success, are best sellers. The answer lies in the subtitle of his most recent book, The Story of Success.

Malcolm is a synthesizer, a pattern recognizer. After he’s done his research and compiled lots of examples to illustrate the points he wants to make, he writes his books by telling stories. He’s a good storyteller.

Daniel Pink, the author of A Whole New Mind, states,

Story represents a pathway to understanding that doesn’t run through the left side of the brain.

It is his belief that people who can recognize patterns and make meaning from seemingly non-related events and information will succeed while the purely logical left brain thinker will struggle. In his view, the future belongs to the big picture thinkers – the storytellers.


Stories are Memorable

From my experience of speaking in front of hundreds of audiences, I have learned that stories are memorable because of the images and emotions contained in the story. The lesson of the story sticks because it’s embedded in an image. The image isn’t a still picture; it’s a motion picture, a movie. While you’re listening to a story, you’re simultaneously watching the story on the movie screen in your mind, in your imagination. Furthermore, a motion picture – a movie – works better than a still picture image.


Let’s test the theory

Take a moment now to think about a movie that you first saw over ten years ago, prior to the year 2000. Have you identified your movie? Now, what do you remember when you recall this movie?

I bet that the first thing that came to your mind was an image or a scene. If I asked you to describe the scene, you could do it in great detail. You remember the actors, their clothes, the location, the situation, and the emotions. You can see these images as easily now as you did when you were watching the movie.

What you remember next is dialogue. But compared to how vividly you remember the images, you probably don’t remember much of the dialogue. Maybe you remember a line that has become famous by repetition, like “make my day” or “life is like a box of chocolates.” Your brain remembers pictures first. It then remembers the emotional context, and finally, it remembers language.


Why do we remember stories?

In his new book, Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina explains this phenomenon. “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the Amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”

That explains why audience members who saw me tell a story in a keynote over ten years ago approach me like I’m a long lost friend and say, “I still remember your airport story.” But it’s what they say next that proves the effectiveness of my Story Theater Method as an essential leadership skill. With a smile on their face, they say, “I’m still looking for the limo.”

“Look for the Limo” is the branded point of the story. I call it a Phrase That Pays – mental Velcro that makes the point of your story stick. Because they remember the story, they remember the point. When they remember the point, it becomes actionable. What’s the point of developing a presentation filled with great content if no one remembers anything, takes action, or changes his or her behavior?

My Story Theater Method is a synthesis of storytelling form and structure, subtle acting and comedy skills, and message branding. The structure makes the story easy to follow; the acting moments draw the audience into the experience and stimulate emotional responses; and the branded message gives them a call to action they can apply in their lives.

Most people who have ever given a speech, run a business meeting or tried to sell a product or service will tell you that stories are more memorable than facts and data. Yet I still run into business professionals who remain skeptical. “Stories are a waste of time,” they tell me. “I have too much content to cover to waste time telling a story.” In my experience, the story is essential if you want them to remember any of the content.  It’s more likely that content without imagery and emotion is a waste of time.

Marco Iacoboni is a neuroscientist, someone who studies the workings of the brain. In his book, Mirroring People, he asks, “Why do we give ourselves over to emotion during the carefully crafted, heartrending scenes in certain movies? Because mirror neurons in our brains re-create for us the distress we see on the screen. We have empathy for the fictional characters – we know how they’re feeling – because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves.”

Aha! Eureka! At last I’ve found a scientific explanation to explain what I’ve been teaching my students for the last 15 years – mirror neurons. We don’t just listen to stories; we see images and feel emotions. We actually experience the story as if it’s happening to us. According to John Medina:

One important area of research is the effect of emotion on learning. Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events. They persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral events.

By its very nature, story is an emotionally arousing event that engages listeners and holds their attention. With the advent of Blackberry’s and I-phones, competing for your audience members’ mind share is the first challenge a speaker or leader faces.  Good storytelling solves that problem. Then, using storytelling craft, we can attach meaning to the story with a well-chosen point.

In his book, Things That Make Us Smart, Don Norman says,

Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion.


Stories capture the big picture

Now is the time for leaders to become wisdom sharers – synthesizers – storytellers. Simply “getting through the content” is not only ineffective; it wastes everyone’s time. However, simply telling a story will not make you a better leader. It has to be the right story, crafted strategically to make the right point, delivered at the right time, and in a compelling way.

I’ll let author Daniel Pink make my closing argument on the need for leaders to become storytellers.

Stories are easier to remember because stories are how we remember. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.

Doug Stevenson
Doug is a Corporate Storytelling in Business expert, the author of Doug Stevenson's Story Theater Method, and a keynote speaker, trainer and speech consultant. Contact me about my keynotes, trainings and Story Theater Retreats designed to help you become a more successful and inspiring presenter and leader.
Doug Stevenson
Doug Stevenson

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