Storytelling is a powerful tool. It gives us the ability to reach out and connect through words. But you don’t have to be a writer – or even love writing – to become a good storyteller.
It turns out, researchers have found that most decision-making, including in business, is driven by our emotions. We like to believe we are using logic to come to well-formulated conclusions, but in reality, we use data and facts to post-rationalize the decisions our emotions have already driven us to make. Like that new car. You bought it for the great gas mileage, right? And because it was the most economical option? Or did you buy it because of how it made you feel… The feeling you got sitting behind the wheel. The feeling from the name brand…. And then you decided the gas mileage was good and the purchase fit your budget.
So how does this work? How do stories capture our attention? It turns out, storytelling actually evokes a neurological response. Good stories – stories that connect to us – actually release oxytocin in our brains. That’s the feel-good chemical, that promotes connection and empathy. Scientists have found that the higher our levels of oxytocin, the more empathy we have, and the more likely we are to act on that emotion. Advertisers have been using this persuasive power of storytelling for years.
Okay, but not every story we tell will evoke a feel-good response. An urgent alert. A boring yet important update. We have the full spectrum of stories that we need to get out to promote our businesses. Still, we can evoke emotion. Remember, emotions also run the full spectrum. Happy, sad, confused, astonished, anxious… Storytelling structure also creates an emotional response. “People are attracted to stories,” one researcher says, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.”
Recognized as the leading trial lawyer of his time, Moe Levine often used the “whole man” theory to successfully influence juries to empathize with his clients. Seeking compensation for a client who had lost both arms in an accident, Levine painted a brief yet emotional picture:
“As you know, about an hour ago we broke for lunch. I saw the bailiff come and take you all as a group to have lunch in the jury room. Then I saw the defense attorney, Mr. Horowitz. He and his client decided to go to lunch together. The judge and court clerk went to lunch. So, I turned to my client, Harold, and said ‘Why don’t you and I go to lunch together?’ We went across the street to that little restaurant and had lunch. (Significant pause.) Ladies and gentlemen, I just had lunch with my client. He has no arms. He has to eat like a dog. Thank you very much.”
Levine reportedly won one of the largest settlements in the history of the state of New York.
Stories make ideas stick. They persuade us. Motivate us. Demonstrate to us. You’ve heard ‘don’t tell me, show me’? That’s precisely what stories do, they show us. It’s why preachers tell so many stories on Sunday. Politicians. Well, we won’t talk about politics other than to say that politicians use stories too – and they work.
Unfortunately, in the era 140 character status updates, we sometimes forget how to tell a good story. We get caught up in our word limits, or business lingo, and stories can get lost or buried.
So what makes a story good? Compelling characters. A memorable message. Emotion. These are the components that help us connect to our audience.