How stories light up your listeners

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Sharing common experience is one of the most powerful ways to engage with an audience. Some fascinating research done by Uri Hasson and others in 2010 at Princeton University not only discovered that storytelling lights up the same part of the brain as story listening, but also revealed that this correlation falls away if the listener does not understand the story. Perhaps this is the reason for blank stares from the audience during many business, technical, academic and science publicspeaking– the message doesn’t “light up” the audience. In his TED talk from 2016, Hasson says “In order for our brains to be coupled, we need common ground.”

How do you find common ground? You may not understand stories spoken in a language that is not your own. You may also be more interested in a story that reminds you of your own experiences. Perhaps this is why many technologists cling to bullet points and facts and figures; they are interested in them and know that their colleagues are as well. However, research shows us that our reaction to content is affected more by the delivery than by the content itself. Paul Zac’s team at Claremont Graduate School has measured oxytocin levels in listeners to study the effect of storytelling on people. In an article in HBR, Zac says, “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.” And how do we get there? We have to build tension and anticipation in the listener, get them involved emotionally. Enter, the story.

The typical story arc starts with characters and a setting and moves to problems and challenges. The great stories keep us captivated by doing an excellent job of building empathy because they make us care what happens to the characters and compare it to our own life experience, see if we can learn anything about solving our own problems. As the pioneer digital storyteller, Dana Atchley told Fast Company way back in 1999, “Any presentation has to have a dramatic arc. (At Coca-Cola) we wanted to create the sense of a journey, with a call to action at the end. If I give a presentation that’s intended to sell, I tell a story whose call to action is ‘Purchase my product.’”

To me, all of this points back to intention: what are you trying to do with your communication? Are you trying to educate? To inform? Alternatively, are you trying to persuade someone to your point of view? Do you want to motivate them to engage with you? If your intention is to engage and influence, you have to do more than inform with facts and figures; you need to move hearts and minds. Try a story.

 

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