Storytelling is absolutely buzzing. Whether you’re a startup looking for seed money or a neuroscientist looking to make your research more accessible to the general public, stories have become a go-to communications strategy across the globe. Everyone loves a good story, and it’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of the listener or reader. Who wants to sit through a boring presentation of numbers and data if they can be dazzled by that same information in cliff-hanging story format instead?
Stories, and in particular personal stories, have the ability to illuminate fault lines, highlight oddities, and paint a picture of the past, present, and future that is both compelling and easily understandable.
The thing is, there’s a reason we love stories. They do something to our brain that other forms of conveying information don’t. And the neuroscience behind storytelling – that hard data that proves the effectiveness of the concept – is nothing short of extraordinary.
What do stories do?
Uri Hasson is a pioneer and recognised authority on storytelling neuroscience. Working out of Princeton, Hasson wanted to understand the underlying neural mechanisms of human communication, and began his research on how the brain is activated when it consumes a story.
“It occurred to us that stories are one of the most effective ways to communicate, so we started to look at what is going on in the listeners’ brains as they listen to real-life spoken stories (…)”
What they found was that the neural responses (the brain activity) was similar across all listeners, in everything from auditory and linguistic (ie, the sound and language perception) to what’s known as high-order areas. These are areas of the brain that perceive concepts and associations, and the similarities here were directly linked to the narrative of the story.
Here’s the kicker, though: Not only did Hasson and his colleagues find similar responses in the speaker and in the listener (ie, a similar emotive experience; a shared experience). They also found similar responses when a story was translated from Russian to English. The same story that created an emotive response in Russian listeners – with a slight lag from the Russian speakers – created the same emotive response in English listeners.
The story became a shared experience, regardless of language. The speakers and listeners experienced the same neural responses in the high-order areas. In the connection to the story.
Stories create better communication
After conducting the experiment and observing the neural responses in both speaker and listeners, Hasson, Stephens, and Silbert then proceeded to check for what kind of communication the storytelling resulted in. Did stories work better as a means of conveying information? They sure did. Comprehension tests after the storytelling component of the experiment showed that the stronger the correlation between the listeners’ and speaker’s responses in the brain, the better the communication.
The findings (…) indicate that during successful communication, speakers’ and listeners’ brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns. Such neural coupling substantially diminishes in the absence of communication, such as when listening to an unintelligible foreign language.
As discussed in a previous article, stories also cause the production of oxytocin in our brain. When we feel connected to a story, and particularly the main character in that story, a connection literally emerges through the trust hormone. So stories ensure better communication, and they ensure communication that’s based on empathy – on shared experiences and understanding.
Memories are another essential part of Hasson’s research on neuroscience and storytelling. In this talk, he shows how the timeline of our lives is centered around our experiences – and how a personal story connects the speaker’s past (memory) with the listener’s future (imagination). This last point is particularly interesting in business communications and writing.
It proves that by communicating through stories, we are able to build connections that in turn fuel imagination and aspiration in our ideal clients.
So, what does this all mean for your business?
Here’s what the neuroscience has told us so far:
- Stories create a connection between the brains of speakers and listener
- Stories facilitate better communication
- Stories trigger the production of oxytocin (trust)
- Stories link the storyteller’s past to the story-listener’s future
In business communications, where storytelling and narrative tools are actively used on your website, in blog posts, and throughout your social media content, you’ll see,
- Stronger connection
- Better communication
- More trust
- A clearer link between how your business’ past can help shape your ideal clients’ future
In order to gel your readers’ story brains powered on, though, you have to be willing to share your experiences and stories in a human way. People don’t buy from self-obsessed businesses that only want to talk about their features, testimonials and overall awesome-ness.
People buy from people – people who showcase empathy and understanding. They also buy from people who can help them get to where they want to go. Tell that story, and you’ll already be in a different communications league to most of your competitors.