The Neuroscience of Storytelling


Call it the year of storytelling. When we think of 2021 so far, there are countless examples in which we’ve had to craft our own narratives. We’ve had to explain COVID-19 virus to our children, try to reconnect with friends outside of our pandemic bubbles and tell them stories of what we’ve been up to, and we’ve continually had to frame new narratives at work around the pros and cons of an interconnected, virtual-first world.

That’s because we communicate through stories, be it a new work project, connecting with someone in a fitness class, or binge-watching a series on Netflix. Humans live in, and through, stories, which is why it’s important to understand what happens in the brain when we tell stories and why they resonate so much for us.

At the 35,000-foot level, our brains like stories, because clear narratives cut through distractions. Stories help us pay attention–particularly in this attention era, when vying for people’s focus is more coveted than ever.

When we see or hear a story, the neurons in our brain fire in the same patterns as the speaker’s, a process known as “neural coupling.” You also hear it referred to as “mirroring.” According to highly-cited work by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson, these processes occur across many different areas of the brain, and can induce a shared contextual model of the situation. The motor and sensory cortices, as well as the frontal cortex are all engaged during story creation and processing. These networks are nurtured and solidified by feelings of anticipation of the story’s resolution, involving the input of your brain’s form of candy, dopamine.

That’s why when we experience an emotionally-charged event or hear a story of the same nature, certain parts of our brain release excess dopamine, making it easier to remember something with greater accuracy. If you are married, there’s a good chance you remember the exact details (the weather, the lighting, the smells) of your engagement decades later; the dopamine surge is also why well-structured TED Talks resonate with us years after we listen to them.

It’s worth noting that neuroscientists are still debating these findings and which specific areas of the brain are firing during narratives, but we know from experience that when we’re listening to a good story — heavy in detail, emotive, relatable — we tend to imagine ourselves in the same situation. Likewise, we are able to share our rich memories or imaginary stories with others.

We also know that stories resonate at a business level, not just a personal one. Carmine Gallo, author of The Storyteller’s Secret, interviewed many business leaders about how storytelling can improve organizations. Ben Horowitz, co-founder of large venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, told her the most underrated skill in business is storytelling and Richard Branson has said, entrepreneurs who cannot tell a story will never be successful.”

The Art of Telling a Story

So how can you tell better stories at work? Here are three key components keep in mind:

Pull people in: You’ve probably had an experience where you’ve attended a data-heavy presentation and found yourself nodding off within the first few minutes. In certain roles, the data is super important. But for most people, they need context for what is being shown. What does the data mean? A lot of good storytelling falls within this prism of coherence, or the structural integrity of ideas wherein each added idea builds on and reinforces related concepts. Coherence helps us focus and cut through the noise.

Be visual: Our brains can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, which equates to a speed of 75 frames per second. That’s why good stories show (“Wearing her only pair of holeless pants, she sat down on a threadbare couch”) instead of tell (“She’s poor.”) Whether it’s through words or actual visuals, stories that set a rich scene help us process them faster and become more engaged. That’s also why incorporating visuals such as art and charts, when possible, into your storytelling will make your narrative stronger and stickier.

Generate insights: The most-remembered stories leave you understanding something more deeply than you did before. NLI’s research has found that organizations should design learning programs to maximize the insights that participants generate. Insight, here, is defined as that moment when an individual goes from no-solution to solution — from “I don’t understand this” to “Aha! I got it!” In a work context, you can design employee meetings around story frameworks more than “check-ins” by asking more about solutions and less about problems. Having a two-way synchronous conversation increases reflection, raises a sense of primary relatedness in our brains, and builds connections.

For example, when a new manager joined NLI recently, my first long conversation with her touched on discussions about Chinese politics and fertility. Neither relate to our direct roles, but both create insights and connections. This ultimately strengths the relationship–and thus–the work.

Author: Ted Bauer

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