Today, we’re following up our previous article on corporate storytelling – Once upon a time: The power of story – with a closer look at how stories impact the brain.
“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
You don’t have to look far to see this truth play out in the world around you — storytelling can transform the nature of your communications. It’s a powerful way to strike a deeper chord in your relationship with others. It can elevate the delivery of factual information to an entirely different arena of connection.
Why is that? Why do our eyes glaze over and our thoughts wander when presented a dry PowerPoint deck? Why do our ears perk up and our bodies come alive when hearing a story? What’s going on inside of us? These are questions with complex answers. We won’t pretend we can tackle all of the intricacies. Still, it’s worth taking a glance at some of the neuroscience behind storytelling.
Stories engage the brain more than data
Stories and data have different impacts on the brain and our level of likelihood to take action.
By way of example, consider the delivery of the following data:
- The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.
- Nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.
- 1 out of every 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.
With this example, the standard language processing regions of your brain are activated only as you decode words into meaning.
In contrast, consider this delivery:
Don said on his daughter’s first day as a junior she was busy planning what to wear and how to do her hair. She overflowed enthusiasm — couldn’t wait to see some old friends and make new ones. Before she left the house that morning, they shared an ordinary breakfast — some plain yogurt, fruit and toast. Nothing extravagant. Yet, Don will never forget that simple meal. It’s locked in his memory along with the radiant smile on Rachel’s face as she went out the door. She never made it to school that day. En route she began texting a friend while driving, and her distraction led to the crash. That small action changed everything. Now, Don continues to share the story of his daughter as a loving caution to others.
With this narrative, complete with descriptive phrases that evoke the senses, what are you experiencing now? More areas of your brain are activated. Beyond the language-processing layer, many other regions of the brain activate to experience the events in the story, including your sensory cortex.
It doesn’t take much guesswork to know — it’s the narrative story, not the bullet list of statistics, that’s likely to have a longer, more emotional impact on you.
Stories stimulate emotional and biological responses
As you engage in a story, it’s not simply the brain that gets activated — they evoke emotions as well. They awaken your senses and trigger an array of biological responses throughout the body. Your engagement in the story immediately becomes far more than an intellectual act, moving into the realm of a visceral experience. You’re pulled in as a participant in an arousing account, instead of being limited to cerebral processing. Your ability to recall the story also increases as it becomes embedded in multiple sensory areas. Those strong emotions and feelings anchor more vivid, lasting memories.
Think about that sensation you experience when a movie ends happily. Your limbic system becomes activated and releases dopamine, which prompts associated feelings of optimism. This stands in stark contrast to what you experience while hearing a tense news story. That feeling of edginess is real. Your body has released the stress hormone cortisol. These biological reactions impact your engagement in what is communicated.
Our brains are wired to crave stories
On top of this, our brains are meaning-making machines that seek cause and effect relationships. Our unconscious brain system — where most of what we think and do originates — is weak in statistical reasoning. It prefers to process information based on causal relationships. Because this unconscious brain system plays a tremendous role in changing behavior, it’s wise to shape information in a way that appeals to it.
Stories can satisfy the unconscious system’s need for causal relationships — framing information in a way that is easy to make sense of and relate to existing experiences. Presenting data in the context of a causal interpretation or story is much more powerful than sharing statistical results in isolation. By accompanying such information with individual stories or case studies, you’re much more effective at changing long-held beliefs.
Know Your Company, the simple web app that helps you learn something new about your company on a weekly basis, demonstrates this beautifully. On their site, they share impressive statistics about the impacts their software has had among customers, such as:
“92% of CEOs say Know Your Company helps them feel more connected their employees.”
“81% of employees say they better understand the work being done at their company.”
But, Know Your Company, doesn’t leave it at that. They include specific quotes from satisfied customers and frame deeper customer “success stories” that paint clear before and after pictures, appealing to the brain’s affinity for contrast.
This technique of coupling statistics with case studies within marketing and sales conversations is particularly helpful because any purchase decision is fraught with fear, albeit often unconscious. Providing clear examples alleviates some of the ambiguity. Without them, there is more space for potential customers’ brains to connect the dots themselves, possibly wandering into narratives with less favorable outcomes.
You can transfer experiences through storytelling
Another important quality of storytelling is its ability to evoke a synchronized brain response in the listener. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson conducted a pivotal study exploring social interaction, in which the phenomenon of “brain coupling” was observed. Essentially, speakers and listeners display similar brain activity during the telling of a story. Through storytelling, you can prompt others to mimic your own brain patterns and connect them to events they didn’t experience firsthand.
So when a company shares success stories — as we just explored with Know Your Company — they enable potential customers to live out aspects of another company’s success on an even deeper level than you may realize. Trying on those positive outcomes is likely to feel quite good and evoke more regions of the brain favorably.
Many companies also use stories to share their history and organizational purpose with stakeholders in a way that creates a greater connection with the company. Take this excerpt from Warby Parker’s company story, for instance:
Every idea starts with a problem. Ours was simple: glasses are too expensive. We were students when one of us lost his glasses on a backpacking trip. The cost of replacing them was so high that he spent the first semester of grad school without them, squinting and complaining. (We don’t recommend this.) The rest of us had similar experiences, and we were amazed at how hard it was to find a pair of great frames that didn’t leave our wallets bare. Where were the options?
It turns out there was a simple explanation. The eyewear industry is dominated by a single company that has been able to keep prices artificially high while reaping huge profits from consumers who have no other options.
We started Warby Parker to create an alternative.
Written in the genuine voice of the company, this tale calls customers and employees to participate in a greater narrative. Others are drawn into sensory experiences of lost or broken glasses, squinting and complaining and bare wallets. They are then pulled into a bigger story of being an underdog intent on disrupting an outdated system. Those encountering this story didn’t necessarily participate firsthand in that pivotal loss of glasses and the journey of forming the now highly successful company. Nevertheless, they become a participant in that narrative.
Using stories to offer simulation and inspiration
The transferability of experiences through storytelling, of course, makes it an invaluable tool for leading companies. The best stories prompt action by offering our minds simulation (knowledge about how to act) along with inspiration (motivation to act). They connect deeply to identified audience pain points and appeal to varying learning styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic). They move beyond abstract directives to invite participation and encourage people to shift into problem-solving mode. By shaping stories with care, you can capture attention, stir empathy and create strong emotional connections that move people inside and outside your organization.