By now you’re probably aware that I talk about stories a lot, and especially about how they are used by effective speakers. In last week’s post (which you can read here), I revealed the most common mistake speakers make when they use stories: they don’t continue the story past the climactic moment enough for the listener to experience how the character(s) is/are changed by what happens. Did you wonder why that’s so important? Or why stories carry such a strong emotional appeal for us to begin with? It turns out that modern neuroscience has the answer! There truly is a biological explanation for the way we respond when we hear, read, or watch a story unfold.
My friend Kimberly Myers recently shared (via LinkedIn) a link to a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.” I hope you’ll take the time to read the entire article; if you don’t, I hope my summary here will do it justice. A Harvard researcher named Paul J. Zak has studied the precise mechanism by which a neurochemical called oxytocin acts to motivate cooperation with, and empathy for, other people. One of his findings is that character-driven stories cause oxytocin levels to rise.
Another of his findings reveals why it is so important for a story to depict a conflict or struggle. As you might suspect, it has to do with getting and keeping the listener’s attention:
We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.
Feelings and behaviors? Cooperation and empathy? All well and good, but what about using stories as illustrations in a speech? Zak covers that base as well, when he says, “My experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.”
There you have it. Tell a story, make a point. It’s not just good speaking advice—it’s science! It has previously been observed that when we hear a story, our physiological responses—things like heart rate, breathing, and perspiration—change in ways that mimic what would happen if we were experiencing those events first-hand. Now, using neuroscience, we are able to go deeper and understand exactly why that happens, and the implications for good speaking. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of research fascinating.
Was this interesting to you? How does it change your understanding? Please leave your comments below.
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