The Story Drug

Picture this:

People are shown a film. It’s about a family that learns their son is going to die of brain cancer. The dying boy does not know. The dad is so sad and conflicted that he cannot show his boy any joy. This goes on and on. The boy and his Dad cannot connect because of this unstated grief. Finally the dad works up the courage to be joyful around his son. They play games. They go to fun places, and they cherish the short time they still have together.

Hundreds of people are shown this film, and something happens to all of them. It may be happening to you right now as well. A hormone called oxytocin spikes in our minds while watching this film, or even reading about it. Oxytocin is not to be confused with OxyContin, which is a dangerously addictive pain-killer and sedative. Oxytocin is in us all. It’s called the love hormone, and it is released whenever we bond with someone. That can be your lover, your BFF, the guys or gals on a fun night out.

Oxytocin is where empathy comes from. We feel for another. We want to help.

This is the power of good storytelling. It’s why a good salesman or businessman may tell a client or acquaintance a joke, or relay a quick story. It’s why great CEOs tell stories in speeches. It builds a bond.

Neuroscientists confirm that our brains are wired for stories. Social anthropologists believe 80 percent of fireside chats of our ancient ancestors were made up of stories. This social network helped them become better hunters, better gatherers, better survivors. It helped them build tools and innovate.

This is what effective storytellers tap into.

StorytellersSecret“A person who tells compelling stories can actually place thoughts, ideas and emotions into a listener’s brains,” writes Carmine Gallo, author of The Storyteller’s Secret.

Gallo writes about how the some of the best business people, from Richard Branson to the late Steve Jobs, became effective leaders and built business empires—through the art of effective storytelling.

“Ideas that catch on are wrapped in story,” Gallo writes. And the most inspiring leaders of these ideas speak in the story of adversity. Someone or some movement faces a challenge or obstacle, like the dad being sad, yet needing to be a good father. Think of how many movies you’ve seen in which someone has a conflict and overcomes a huge obstacle. Nearly all of them.

“Speakers in particular can enjoy what’s called neural coupling with their audience. When someone hears a good story, the minds of the storyteller and listener align. They light up not just in the areas of the brain controlling speech and language, but also in those areas responsible for social information processing, which is so crucial for successful communication. We start discerning the beliefs, desires and goals of others. This is empathy, and it becomes even stronger amid a group of people.”

This also occurs to varying degrees if you’re reading or watching a movie. It’s why we say we identify with the characters in a movie or book. According to Gallo, neuroscientists are finding that when we read a page-turning novel, we are immersing ourselves into the “body” of the protagonist.

Neural coupling leads to what is called mood contagion, or the transfer of mood between two people. A good story can cheer, motivate, and inspire audiences.

The U.S. defense department’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research projects Agency) has even worked on a Narrative networks program that studies how stories form opinions that create conflicts and can lead to resolutions. Included in this is how propaganda can brainwash people such as terrorists, and how to countermand it. (And it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see how such competition to control the narratives play out in today’s political world.)

HumansAreUnderratedBottom line is this: “Effective storytelling has become a strategic imperative for any nation or company or person or entity hoping to exert influence,” writes Geoff Colvin in Humans are Underrated: What High Achiever Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will.

This is what successful brands and successful companies realize and practice.

Successful brands—individuals and companies from Apple’s Jobs to Virgin’s Branson—see themselves as storytellers first.

To win market share you must take your audience on an emotional journey, Gallo writes. “Stories have a unique power to move people’s hearts, minds, feet and wallets in the storyteller’s intended direction.”

Circle back to the story of the father and his ill son:

Another film was shown to a different audience depicting Ben and his father visiting a zoo. Ben has no hair and his father refers to him as “miracle boy.” It is clear that we are watching a father and son, and that the son has cancer. The film has a narrative of them doing a variety of things at the zoo, but there is no story. The brain chemistry of the viewers did not vary and they did not become notably generous to the charity. This film had no impact.

“The greatest waste is an unfulfilled idea that fails to connect with audiences, not because it’s a bad idea, but because it’s not packaged in a way that moves people,” Gallo writes.

“A compelling story with an emotional trigger alters our brain chemistry, making us more trusting, understanding, and open to ideas,” Gallo concludes.


The Storyteller’s Secret, by Carmine Gallo

Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that the Most Brilliant Machines Never Will, by Geoff Colvin

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Categories: Story ConnectionTags: , , ,

Steven Castle

Writer, photographer and storyteller. Author of The Really Good Life. Nature buff.

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