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How to leverage neuroscience to tell engaging stories

Every savvy marketer, leader or sales professional knows they need to have business storytelling in their toolkit. Stories are conduits through which ideas are brought to life, connections established and decisions made. This is powerful stuff! Yet so many of the stories we read and hear fall flat. We lose attention and leave feeling bored and uninspired. What’s gone wrong – and how do we do it better?

What we get wrong about storytelling

Many of the ‘stories’ we encounter are actually not stories – they’re simply content: sometimes engaging, sometimes dull, but nonetheless, just content. Worse still, we may not be using stories at all: relying on facts and figures to try to persuade and motivate people.

To be a story, a narrative has to:

  • have a certain shape;
  • contain particular elements; and 
  • make a distinct impact on the listener/reader and the storyteller.

The most effective stories have people at their heart. They are character-driven, and follow the classic narrative arc that we’re familiar with from popular culture: a beginning or setup, a climax with conflict, and a resolution. Don’t think that this format is just for the movies. It’s incredibly powerful for your own storytelling too, whether in a personal or professional context.

The neuroscience of stories

What actually happens when we hear a story unfold through this classic arc? 

Neuroscientists have studied brain patterns and blood content as people listen to stories, and found that it physically affects our brains and bodies and even triggers certain behaviours.

The Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Paul J. Zak, knows that the the brain loves good storytelling:

When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains. (Paul J. Zak, 2014)

Zak’s research has shown that a story with rising tension and conflict triggers a release of lots of activating chemicals:

  • Cortisol commands the brain’s attention;
  • Dopamine creates arousal as we anticipate an outcome; and
  • Oxytocin triggers empathy and endorphins to leave us feeling good.

Neural coupling also takes place, where the storyteller and listener’s brain patterns synchronise and a connection is felt.

People don’t just feel engaged after hearing a story – they act in line with those feelings too. In Zak’s studies, participants who hear a story about a child dying of cancer then donate money to a cancer charity. It’s clear why marketers and sales managers love storytelling!

Top storytelling techniques

How can you craft your own stories so you command people’s attention, attach them to you and your goals, and spark them into action? The following tips will help you:

Your story should express your values

Your values should be an invisible undercurrent in your story. As it unfolds, they will be reflected in the decisions you made along the way, how you handled conflict, and the final outcome of your story.

To find your values, ask yourself what matters to you. 

  • What makes me angry? (Once you know – flip these, and you’ll have what is important to you)
  • What do I want to fix or solve? 
  • What goals do I want to realise for myself and others? 
  • What are the goals of my organisation – and which ones do we share?

Shortlist the top five values revealed by your answers. Thread one or more of these into your story so they resonate with the shared values of your audience.

Your story must speak to your audience and purpose

What do you want your audience to believe, feel or do once they’ve heard your story? 

Stories can be powerful for: 

  • establishing emotional rapport
  • simplifying an idea; broadening your reach
  • building trust and connection
  • motivating people to action
  • bearing witness
  • creating a legacy

Knowing your audience allows you to better connect with them, because you can shape a story that taps into shared values and goals, or appeals to their interests, challenges and aspirations. You are aiming to create that neural coupling where you merge as one towards a shared vision.

Your story needs to include an antagonist

Every great story has a climax with conflict, where you come up against an antagonist. This is the key moment in your story that triggers cortisol and dopamine. 

Your antagonist can be: 

  • a person, like the villain in a film
  • your internal self-doubt
  • your client or customer’s challenges
  • a personal or professional barrier
  • social or institutional structures

Once you free up your thinking to explore conflict in this way, you’ll find it easier to create moments of tension that engage the audience and get them invested in your story’s outcome. Ideally, your conflict is something universal that others have suffered too.

The climax peaks with either success or defeat. Defeat may sound negative but can elicit strong emotions in your audience and lend itself to lessons learned.

Your story will wrap up with a resolution

In drawing your story to a close, think of the lasting lessons or messages you would like to leave with your audience. 

Ask yourself:

  • How would I like my work to be talked about right now, or remembered in future?
  • What is my legacy? 
  • What has changed in the world following the journey of my story? 
  • What feeling do I want to leave my audience with? 
  • What action do I want to inspire my audience to take next?

Finally, leave a hint of what is to come next for you and your audience. Lead them into action! 

What to do with your story

Once you’ve crafted your stories, get them in front of your audience! They can be written or spoken.

  • Update your LinkedIn profile and website. People often secretly check up on you before you meet, to see who you are and what you’re talking about.
  • Pull key sentences from your ‘origin’ or ‘purpose’ story and weave them into your social media bios.
  • Practice speaking your stories aloud when you’re alone, so you can use them confidently when you first meet a business connection or are moving through the sales cycle.
  • Integrate your story into the introduction of a meeting, workshop or speaking gig, to connect to your audience and prime them to engage with you.

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Photo by DS stories: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pink-toy-car-on-pink-background-10216079/