The Science Behind Storytelling -- and Why It Matters

November 20, 2013

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 You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpointMore at Google+, Facebook and Pinterest.