The Science of Storytelling
You’ve heard that storytelling is important in business, and in life. That it’s a powerful tool that has lasting impact.
But why is that? And how can you become better at it?
Below, we’ll explain the effect of storytelling on our brain, and then give you five tips on how to become a better storyteller.
Have you ever been in an audience when someone is telling a story on stage? Maybe at a TED-style talk, or a stand up comedy show. Notice how it feels like there’s magic in the air?
It’s not magic. It’s neurology.
If we were to put you in an MRI machine and tell you facts (like this one!), the parts of your brain that would light up are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. They are the data processing regions of your brain.
But in a study at Princeton University, scientists found that, when you listen to a well-told story, the parts of your brain that respond are those that would if you were inside the story. So somebody talks about the smell of roasting coffee and your olfactory cortex lights up. They tell you about grabbing a pencil and your motor cortex responds–specifically, the part associated with hand movement.
Even more impressive: this effect also happens to the person telling the story. So, if the story is being told live or in person, both the storyteller’s and the listeners’ brains start lighting up in sync with one another! This is the magic you feel in a room or a group, when a story is being well told and the audience is captivated.
One explanation for this is mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond both when we’re doing an action, and when we see someone else doing that same action. It’s believed that these are the reason why we yawn when we see someone else yawn–and are likely the basis for why we feel empathy.
When someone is telling a story and our brains respond as if we are inside the story ourselves, we feel a powerful connection to the storyteller.
So, what’s the best way to elicit that connection when you tell stories?
#1 Don’t commentate; describe.
We were taught by Dale Carnegie to “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” But storytelling doesn’t work like that.
In order to make your audience’s brains respond as if they’re inside the story, you need just to describe what was happening to you at the time it happened–without necessarily adding opinions or context.
Think of telling a story as making a movie inside your audience’s head. Instead of using voiceover (no pictures) or montage (brief, not very descriptive pictures), tell your story in action scenes. Get granular with the detail. What did it look like? What was happening? Who was there? What did they say?
Here’s an example of someone launching you immediately into an action scene as the story begins:
#2 Use sensory information
Make your descriptions rich. Activate the sensory cortex in your listeners by focusing on smell, touch, sound and feelings in your stories. This story begins immediately by doing this:
#3 Fill your stories with emotion
The biggest mistake I see people making in storytelling is leaving out how they felt. When you include emotions in a story, your audience’s mirror neurons will make them feel those emotions, too.
When we experience empathy, our brains release oxytocin, the “bonding chemical” which leads to feelings of connection and trust.
Further, scientists have discovered that, when we experience an emotionally charged event, our amygdala release dopamine, which helps with information processing and aids memory.
So, if you want people to trust you more, and remember what you said, include emotions in your storytelling!
Bonus tip: To increase the likelihood of activating your audience’s mirror neurons, instead of just naming the emotion you felt, describe how it physically felt in your body. So, rather than “I was happy”, you might say, “It felt like I had warm honey moving through my chest and I couldn’t stop smiling”.
#4 Edit, Edit, Edit!
Telling the truth in your stories isn’t the same as telling EVERYTHING!
John Medina, the New York Times best-selling author and developmental molecular biologist, discovered that the brain has a very short attention span, so it’s important to make sure every part of your story has a place.
Think about what you most want to get across in your story. Then, include details that support this, and take almost everything else out. Does it matter that you had a cold that day? No? Leave it out. Is it important that your mom was wearing a red jacket? Yes? That can stay in.
One thing Medina discovered that we do pay attention to is emotions. Given the release of dopamine and oxytocin we experience, this is no surprise! So, again, your emotional state is a detail worth leaving in.
When you stick to the essential scenes and details plus emotions, you can get across a lot in a short period of time as these five, ninety-second stories show:
#5 Don’t throw in spoilers!
When telling a story, stick to the chronological order that things happened to you in real life. In other words, don’t give us details that you yourself didn’t know, until the part of your story where you discovered them.
By telling us what’s going to happen later, you lose the tension in your story. For example, if you were telling a story about a job interview, then said, “At this point, I didn’t realize that they’d already given the job to someone else” – we stop caring about what happens in that interview, because we know the outcome already.
This is important because, as Paul J. Zak’s studies found, tension is one of the key aspects of holding attention in stories. By throwing in “spoilers”, you lose this tension, which, Zak says, is essential to creating emotional resonance between the storyteller and the audience.
When you’re telling a story, make sure you lay off the thoughts and opinions, stick to the important details, and focus on sensory description and emotions. Ask yourself, “What did it look like?” and “How did I feel?”
This is a guest post by Marsha Shandur, a Storytelling Coach at Yes Yes Marsha. Find her on Facebook and get more tips on how to use personal stories to impact your readers and listeners at her website, YesYesMarsha.com