This is Your Brain on Story: How and why storytelling works

“If a picture is worth a thousand words
then a story is worth a thousand assurances.”
–  Annette Simmons, The Story Factor

Once upon a time a young woman worked as a marketing professional. Her career spanned 15 years before she found herself working for a toxic boss. The boss regularly verbally attacked members of the team. As a result, eventually a full, 22-person department turn over occurred under that person’s leadership (or lack thereof). The woman in marketing decided that if ever there was a time to start her own business, this was the push that she needed to give it a try. So, she jumped into entrepreneurship and the road thereafter, while bumpy, has been the best decision she ever made…

That’s my story (albeit a much-abbreviated version). Yet it does include 3 core elements of a story. The set-up, the conflict and the resolution.  

Too often today people think they are telling a “story” when, in fact, they are rambling a list of details, meandering this way and that or getting into a drawn-out explanation. That is not a story.  

Stories have a structure. They have core elements that must be included. Whether it is written or spoken, in videos or on podcasts… an actual story is  unique because it influences our physiology.

Whether it’s the lyrics in music I used to sing in my room as a kid, the lines of movies I fell in love with and repeated or my career in marketing, I’ve always loved telling stories.

More recently, as a coach specializing in this area, I have discovered why stories work, what they need to include to be considered a “story” and finally what benefits stories can provide.  

Why are stories effective? 

Recently I was at a luncheon with a speaker. She had power point slides and was talking about different concepts and frankly, it was boring. It wasn’t until she started a sentence with, “One day at work, a colleague of mine told me…” that I found my ears perk up.

Why? It was the start of a story. She introduced a setting and a character and suddenly I wanted to hear more.

In an article for the Neuro Leadership Institute titled The Neuroscience of Storytelling, author Ted Bauer notes, When we see or hear a story, neurons in our brain fire in the same patterns as the speaker’s, a process known as neural coupling… the motor and sensory cortices… and the frontal cortex are all engaged during a story creation and processing.”

Turns out, there are real biological factors that occur with storytelling and story listening.  

In an article for Harvard Business Review, psychologist, executive coach and professional storyteller Lani Peterson writes, “Scientists are discovering that chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story.” Those findings matter because cortisol helps us remember, dopamine keeps us engaged and oxytocin is often called the trust hormone.  

Whenever we speak or deliver a message, we want people to listen and remember. It seems that stories hold the key to keeping audiences engaged. Stories build trust, which is what we need in order to influence others.

Furthermore, neuro-economist Paul Zak author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performing Teams points out the, “brain produces oxytocin, a chemical that promotes feelings related to empathy and a desire to cooperate.” Zak has actually done studies that measure things like blood, heart rate and saliva as people listen to stories.

When we communicate an important message (whether it’s for training staff or networking about our business) our desire is to influence other people in one way or another. We want to get them on board with our vision, to follow our direction or to (eventually) buy our products and services.

So, we must make sure we know how to tell a good story.

What needs to be included in a story?

As mentioned earlier, we throw the word “story” around rather haphazardly these days. A friend might pull you aside and say, “Do I have a story for you!” Or maybe you’ll hear, “let me tell you a quick story,” as you network with other professionals – but simply labeling it as such doesn’t make it an actual story.

In the book Building a Story Brand, author (and marketer) Donald Miller points out that, “story formulas reveal a well-worn path in the human brain.”    

From Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" to the dramatic arc of Freytag, stories do have certain ingredients.   

We unconsciously expect basic elements in a story: the set-up, climax, and resolution. When it doesn’t happen, we are left dissatisfied,” Rob Biesenbach writes in Unleash the Power of Storytelling.

Outside of the dramatic arc, there are a few other ingredients worth mentioning when creating a good story. And as I’ve coached people through the process of creating their story – be it for presentations or video – I’ve found that some people have an aversion to this ingredient.

The magical ingredient is emotion. The resistance comes from the idea that using emotion is manipulative. But as multi-bestselling author and writing instructor James Scott Bell points out, “readers want fret.” Every good story includes conflict and that means emotion. Something has to “happen” in order to create the emotion within us that makes us care what happens next. Think of the last great TV show you watched. What was the action or conflict that happened?

And as much as we like to claim logic as the basis of our decision making, author Annette Simmons points out, “Whether we admit it or not, emotions are the driving force behind any major decision we make.” We want to feel something -- that is what makes a story good. 

Another important ingredient for storytelling is detail. When I was in a book writing program, I recall my coach telling the cohort of aspiring authors, “show, don’t tell.” And in her book The Story Factor, author and consultant Annette Simmons echoes this with, “If you demonstrate who you are rather than tell me who you are, it’s much more believable.” What might you demonstrate in your next story?  

What is the benefit to telling a story? 

There are a lot of benefits to being able to tell a good story. Storytellers are seen as influential. When you can tell a good story, you can captivate a room. Storytellers are seen as leaders, they have power.   

We like them. We trust them. And why not? After all, stories literally impact our brain!

If you’re a coach, consultant, trainer or anyone responsible for imparting knowledge on others, then you’ll be very interested to know that Simmons also includes in her book, “When you need to teach someone how to [do something] story halves the necessary teaching time.”   

We don’t always remember the data-driven, step-by-step instructions. But we will remember “why” and that is the opportunity for a story.

In the social-media driven world in which we live, we don’t want to be spoken to we want to be spoken with. We want experiences. Stories provide that. They invite the listener to come along, fill in the blanks, visualize in their own head the tale being told. As author Rob Biesenbach notes, Stories make listening go from being a passive exercise to an active experience.” 

Storytelling is a powerful tool to use whether you’re training, speaking, coaching, consulting or leading others in any way. If you’ve ever sat through a dull presentation or wondered where a speaker was going with whatever it is they’ve been talking about for an hour then you have felt -- first hand -- the absence of a good story.  

Final Thoughts on how and why storytelling works

If you know you need to do more speaking engagements, better connect in networking, or are working to build trust in any form or fashion... learn how to tell a good story. You want to have a stand-out impact? You want to be influential? Tell a story. These days, even if you don’t want to do public speaking or don’t like to be on camera for video, you can still use storytelling to influence others

Not sure how? Reach out to me direct at: consultkery @ 

After coaching, one client recently wrote me this review: “I have never felt more confident in sharing my story and the details of the work we do, all thanks to Kery's ability organize someone's thoughts and craft a story.”

I'd love to do the same for you!  


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