Emotionally engaging stories affect more areas of the brain than rational, data-driven messages – meaning that they are far more likely to resonate with your audience. Jenny Nabben, a leading communications specialist who has written extensively about the power of storytelling explains the neuroscience behind this, and how you can use it to showcase the benefits of storytelling.
Across every culture, in every part of the world, humans have told stories to understand, share and recall knowledge.
While our ancestors sat around the camp fire listening to the tribal storyteller, we now sit in cinemas, theaters or in front of TVs, computers and mobile devices to share the stories of our lives. In fact, the universal nature of storytelling may explain our shared, evolved human psyche.
One of the brain’s unique design features is its ability to recognize patterns so that we can quickly predict what is most likely to happen next. Over the centuries we have used narrative story structure as the most elegant way to communicate our messages, passions, vision and who we are.
Our appetite for storytelling is voracious; since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in around 1440, humans have so far written around 129,864,880 books, and while each book is unique we can group them into common themes. Christopher Booker, in his book The Seven Basic Plots, suggests that there are seven ‘core’ plots that comprise the most commonly recognizable narrative structures. These are, a journey taken and the return; overcoming challenges; making our way in the world; a quest; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth.
Booker’s research states that when we get to the heart of the stories we tell, we notice these common themes. The struggles, losses, joys and the journeys we take in our own lives are reflected back to us in the imaginary world of storytelling. Narrative structure is the most elegant form that has been honed over thousands of years to help us learn, remember and change.
But, if stories are such a great way to spread ideas, to gain understanding and to motivate us, why are so many businesses not able to tell great stories? And what can we learn from neuroscience about the power of stories to connect, inspire and motivate your audience?
Your brain on facts
When we’re presented with information there are two main areas in our brain that light up – Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Listening to (or reading) many of today’s corporate messages is challenging for the brain. Notice what happens when you read a paragraph like this; ‘Further to the recent announcement regarding our strategic initiative to undertake a comprehensive and wide-ranging review of our core service offerings across multiple lines and geographies, we are today announcing the completion of phase one of the review, which included a thorough analysis of our most recent analytics.”
That’s right, your brain is overwhelmed and can’t process the information effectively. Unfortunately, in many of today’s businesses, corporate messages like these are still all too common.
Most businesses are traditionally built on what tends to be called ‘left-brain thinking’. Logic, rationality, facts, data, ratios and information are being used to dominate our efforts to tell our audience what’s actually happening in your business. While left-brain, logical thinking is critical in decision-making and problem-solving, it tends to drown out the important role storytelling plays in helping audiences successfully navigate change and feel engaged with your business.
Some of the recent discoveries in neuroscience are proving that even when we think we are making decisions based on ‘logic’, we are often unconsciously being driven by our emotions. And if emotion rather than logic is really the driving force of so many of our decisions, then stories are the most effective structure to share information, connect people emotionally to a cause and build commitment.
Your brain on fiction
Now notice what happens when you read the following, John Grisham’s The Firm:
“An hour before midnight, the phone rang. Except for it and the light snoring, the second floor office was without a sound. His feet were on the new desk, crossed at the ankles and numb from lack of circulation… After a dozen rings he moved, then jumped at the phone… His shoes were on the floor, next to the desk … an empty potato chip bag was between the shoes… It was his wife. ‘Why haven’t you called?’ she asked, coolly, yet with a slight touch of concern.”
This time, multiple brain regions are activated as you read:
- Sensory cortex and cerebellum, associated with processing texture and sensation (feet on the desk, numb from lack of circulation).
- Motor cortex, when we read about physical movement (jumped).
- Olfactory cortex for smell or memories of smells, (empty potato chip bag, shoes).
- Visual cortex for colour and shape (phone, shoes, desk, pile of documents).
- Auditory cortex for sound (ringing).
While facts and figures engage a small area of the brain, stories engage multiple brain regions that work together to build colorful, rich three-dimensional images and emotional responses. As we read stories we quickly begin to feel as if what’s happening out there is actually happening in here. Each sensory image, sound, texture, color, sensation and emotion provides a hook for our brain as the story draws us in and maintains our attention effortlessly.
This is the power of a great story.
For anyone who wants to create messages that are easily understood, effortless to remember and persuasive to the audience, it’s important to remember that stories are the place to start, and sensory-specific language the way to engage all the parts of the brain.