development, leadership

Tell Me a Story

As a child, I always loved hearing a good story. Even now, I find myself mesmerized by certain people when they speak. They command my attention, capture my emotion, and pull me in. What makes this small group of people unique? They leave me on the edge of my seat, and I only want to hear the sound of their voice in that moment. Why do they have this effect on me? How do they do this?

As I went looking for some answers, I found an interesting Harvard Business Review article, Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling by Paul J. Zak. Zak is a professor of economic sciences, psychology, and management in Claremont Graduate University’s Division of Politics & Economics. Zak discovered neurologic mechanisms that enable cooperation and trust. He and his lab wondered if they could crack the system that delivers oxytocin to move people to cooperate. To get to the discovery, he and his lab “tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin.” They found “that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to cooperate.” (1) Was it possible that I was under the influence of my own burst of oxytocin? It is likely. I know that with this small group of people, which I find captivating, I would probably yield my cooperation. So what is the secret to their storytelling which triggers my brain? Zac’s team “discovered that 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 can 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.” It is amazing how our brains work, and that we aren’t even aware, these chemical releases are happening in our bodies. Oxytocin can ease stress, solidify relationships, and strengthen emotional memories. In my case, the stories of this small group of people pull me in, drive me to cooperate, and strengthens our relationship.

If storytelling has this kind of influence on others, then I want to understand how to best to replicate these storytelling capabilities. Where better to look for great storytelling but the TedTalk stage. My search led me to a simple article, Storytelling is a Powerful Communication Tool: Here’s how to use it from Ted by Chris Anderson. In Anderson’s article, he lays out four simple keys for a story.

  • “Base it on a character your audience can empathize with or around a dilemma your audience can relate to.” (2)
  • “Build tension, whether through curiosity, intrigue or actual danger.” (2)
  • “Offer the right level of detail. Too little and the story is not vivid; too much and it gets bogged down.” (2)
  • “End with a satisfying resolution, whether it’s funny, moving or revealing.” (2)

Anderson’s advice is sound. If speaking for Ted, Anderson also emphasizes the need to leave your audience with something to take away and apply. A take away isn’t required for all storytelling but memorability is important. I would also recommend that you practice telling the story to others and adapt based on their reactions and questions. Remember, a true and personal story is the right fit to provide you the highest impact.

Some may believe that storytelling is not appropriate for the work environment. I would argue there are many places to apply storytelling in the workplace. Here are a few places where you want to be most effective with your storytelling:

  • Interviews – Use your skills but spice up the story with some metrics, your actions, and the outcome. Storytelling skills help others connect logically. We have heard stories since childhood, and our brains have been trained to pick up facts in the story arc sequence. 
  • Teachable Points of View – Anderson’s article emphasizes that a TedTalk story must give to others. The story must connect to something that the audience can take away.
  • Employee Engagement – Engage with coworkers by telling a story that helps them get to know you better.
  • Elevator Stories – Create a memorable story for first meetings with leaders. When I say create, it must be true but well constructed and memorable.

During times of less interaction in person, storytelling can help to bridge gaps and solidify connections with others. Please share your thoughts because an interactive audience enables learning for us all.






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