The Science Behind Storytelling — and Why It Matters

As presenters we want people to pay attention, be engaged and remember the message. The key to doing that? Science now says it involves storytelling: Stories stimulate emotions, which may be the key to better learning, attention, memory and decision making.

When we listen to stories, more of the brain lights up, according to  Annie Murphy Paul, author of “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.” Stories cause your neurons to fire the same way they would if you were doing the actual action talked about. For example, if you were listening to someone talk about kicking a ball, the motor part of the brain that would help you kick a ball in real life lights up.

Here’s the science: Two parts of the brain – Broca’s and Wernicke’s area – automatically light up when listening to a presentation. Think of them as the gray cells that work on processing language and speech — the input/output area of the brain. They’re the same parts of the brain that light up when you read a book, and the same parts of the brain that we use to watch a favorite movie or talk to a loved one.

But just because you’re lighting up a few gray cells doesn’t mean you, the presenter, are getting through. If you’ve ever read the phone directory, you can probably remember doing it, but you probably don’t remember much of the content. Contrast that with your favorite movie, or a story from childhood where you can likely recount a majority of it. Antonio Damasio, USC Professor of Neuroscience, and author of “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain,” says we don’t learn without emotional thought.

John Medina, biologist and author of “Brain Rules,” also notes that, “We don’t pay attention to boring things.” That’s what’s happening in routine tasks, like driving to work, reading the phone directory — and likely what’s happening in a typical bullet-infested, snooze-worthy PowerPoint deck. We get through it, but it’s not sinking in.

Back to the story. We need to tell them, but anyone can tell one. If you’ve listened to a typical 4-year-old’s “and then… and then… and then…,you’ll know not everyone can be Hemingway good. While Pixar isn’t Hemingway, it tells great stories. You surely remember laughing through the antics of Woody and Buzz in “Toy Story,” don’t you?

Here’s a collection of storytelling rules tweeted out by Emma Coats, former story artist at Pixar.

They’re all good advice, but file rules 2 and 4 under “essential” for your next presentation. (Rules 3 and 5 are also great for presenters.)

Rule #2: Tailor to Your Audience

You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

Most presenters trip over this one, and present a topic list of their content. It’s time to change and consider your audience. Try figuring out what they want, in parallel with what you want. If you’re stuck on this, we have a simple tool to help you.

Rule #4: Structure Your Story

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

I am not advocating that you begin your presentation with, “Once upon a time…” but you do need a story structure to maintain people’s attention. Every presentation should have a hook, meat and payoff – a way to organize your content in a narrative that interests and engages the audience.

Remember these rules next time you’re up to present, and you’ll have many more neurons — and applause — firing away.

Read More: Connect With Your Audience Through Storytelling – An Interview with Samantha Starmer of REI

Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, presenting, communication and message discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpointMore at Google+, Facebook and Pinterest.

12 Responses to “The Science Behind Storytelling — and Why It Matters”

  1. David H Deans

    Understanding the science of storytelling is a heck of a lot easier than mastering the art of creating compelling and engaging narrative — that takes talent.

  2. Usman Raza

    i think the story telling is an art plus science it just not step by step process but also a skill which some people can learn or some has it by birth!

  3. Mike Wise

    Nice post. Thank you. Great points. My value-add: Good Storytelling takes time, though, doesn’t it? In the busyness of life, it seems critically important that we slow down enough to see the stories that are circulating around us all the time, the intricacies, and then slow down even further to capture on-the-fly media, make notes, and then later circle back to the story in hindsight, create blogs, pdf’s, and video’s. True?

  4. Anant Sahay

    It is good to know that the science is validating the ancient art of story telling known to the mankind for thousands of years. Be it the Bible or the Mahabharata: “the ocean of thousand stories”, as Salman Rushdie called it; the embedded messages reached every nook and corner, into every human being: lettered or not. I loved this article because it buttresses my view, which I have held for years: a presentation without a story line is just a Digustation menu. (no pun intended!).

  5. jhante

    We can certainly make presentation content more interesting and retain-able by telling stories, however imperfect. I’m still working on this myself.

  6. Gavin McMahon

    Hi – thanks for the comments. There is no question there is a science to how people react to stories, and certainly that there is are talented storytellers out there. I believe though, that people can learn, quite simply, to tell better stories. There are a few methods and principles which help. I’ll write about that soon.
    As to the busyness of life. No question we’re busy. But if what you have to say has no impact – because you did not take the time up front – why bother saying it. It’s a question of how you measure the value of what you do in work and life – by checking of a “been there, done that” checklist, or by measuring the impact of what you do.

  7. CJ

    Great Article. Sales copy writers and public speakers complain that it is harder to get people’s attention today because of modern technology, but I say it’s because they too use this technology so much that their storytelling muscle is weak. It’s easy to forgo storytelling when we allow ourselves to skim through understanding through top 10 articles and how to outlines. It is in the stories that sales copy and speech are truly learned.