The Science of Storytelling: Why Your Brain Loves Stories

For years, we’ve been advising our presentation training clients to incorporate storytelling into their presentations, often during the opening. We’ve consistently observed how stories captivate an audience and lead to the most memorable moments of an entire speech.

Frankly, it doesn’t take an expert to spot that. Everyone sitting in the audience sees the same thing.

Recent research adds scientific heft to those observations. Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, studied a neurochemical called Oxytocin, which he describes as “a key ‘it’s safe to approach others signal’ in the brain.” According to a paper called “Oxytocin: The Great Facilitator of Life,” the hormone also plays a role in social attachment, maternal behavior, and orgasm (although we don’t recommend seeking that result during your presentations).

orator in public
For an article in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Zak writes that “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.”

And, critically, he writes, “The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

Given the importance of oxytocin to achieving your goals, perhaps we should stop telling our trainees to “tell stories” and advise them instead to “produce more oxytocin for the audience.”

Excited Speaker
Dr. Zak offers a few specific recommendations to help speakers sharpen their storytelling:

“We discovered that, in order 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 is able to 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. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.

These findings on the neurobiology of storytelling are relevant to business settings. For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.”

He recommends focusing your storytelling on human aspects, not the more procedural ones:

“We know that people are substantially more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services).  Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories – for example, by describing the pitiable situations of actual, named customers and how their problems were solved by your efforts.”

We’ve always known that stories are critical to speaking success. Now we have a new scientific language available to us to explain why.