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3 May 2016

The science and practice of storytelling

The Science and Practice of Storytelling

Human beings are pattern-seeking animals. Our brains are perfected to seek out patterns in order to reduce overwhelming sensory input from the outside world to something meaningful, and navigable. Stories are one of the primary ways that we do this. We look for a narrative in our own life and, if the narrative is a good one, we will feel fulfilled. And we will be clear about the actions that we need to take. A muddled narrative, a negative narrative, or a dull narrative, will have no such effect.

Stories are hardwired into humanity. And yet, until quite recently, they have been much undervalued in many business environments. But if we want our people to retain what we say, and to connect with what we believe, and to clearly and positively navigate the complexity of their working lives, then we need to tap into their storytelling hardware. We need to learn how to press those oral, verbal buttons that will stimulate your listener’s imaginations, emotions and bodies. But it’s useful to understand why, in part so that you are convinced enough to work to adopt the new skills.

Wonderfully, in recent years there have been many studies that have started to examine the effects of storytelling on our brains, to explain the mystery of it all. An important study took place at Princetown University, US under the guidance of Neuroscientist Uri Hasson. He ran an experiment in which a woman told a story first in Russian and then in English, whilst in an MRA scanner (she was fluent in both languages). They then recorded the MRA scans of people listening to her story. When the listeners understood her story (the English version) their brain activity mirrored hers. In fact, the better they understood and recalled the story, the more intense was the mirroring. And at times, they owned the narrative so much they even pre-empted the storyteller. For Uri, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.

To make this mirroring work, however, a goodly portion of our brains needs to be firing. If just the little language processing centres in the dominant, usually left, hemisphere are working, there isn’t much to mirror. What need to be provoked are all the sensual cortexes, our visual, sensory, auditory, olfactory, motor cortexes, and the emotional centres in the mid-brain. As we use tangible language, imagery and metaphor, all these areas begin to spring to life, and this provides a strong provocation for the listener’s mind to start to mirror and match ours, thus creating their own relationship to our story.

It doesn’t just happen in the brain. Another neuroscientist exploring storytelling is Paul J Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University. His lab has been at the forefront of research into Oxytocin, a neurochemical that is is synthesized in the human brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. Zak has spent over a decade exploring social interaction and Oxytocin and has discovered that stories are a prime stimulant for its release. In his words, “character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis”. And even the simplest narrative can do this. If a story is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc, it will trigger the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin. And it will therefore create a highly empathic response, a feeling of trust and a desire to cooperate.

To do this, we just need a few ingredients. Firstly, to stimulate the cortisol, we need a character that we can identify with, and then we need to put them in a predicament. Then we need to develop that predicament to a peak. Once past the peak, we need to resolve the narrative to a satisfying, problem-solving conclusion. And this will release the Oxytocin. The narrative arc can happen in a small anecdote, or in a story-shaped speech. It is just important to understand how character and plot work to create the emotional shifts in the listener. 

So to get the benefits of storytelling, the brain engagement, and the trust neurochemical Oxytocin, you need to be doing good storytelling, with great plot and engaging language. And that is what our training and speech-writing coaching is about, developing a method to become a great storyteller.

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