How storytelling works


The power of storytelling has always been understood (consider oral history as I mentioned in my article The Magician and the story teller).


But here’s the rub.


Neuroscience has finally caught up with our oral tradition and now shows us just ‘how’ our brains mirror some of the activities within stories. These activities create bonds within us that can lead to changed beliefs, changed attitudes and changed behaviours.


We know biology drives our emotions, such as the release of oxytocin (the feel good chemical) when we hear good aspects in a story, or the release of dopamine from our limbic (reward centre) that triggers feelings of hope and optimism when we hear happy endings. It is no surprise then that story telling is one of the most powerful means of communication.


Stories are how we make sense of the world.  They are how we learn.


This is related to what is called ‘episodic’ memory; the brain’s own need for direction and pattern (ie, a beginning, a middle and an end) and for cause and effect. If stories offer reasons or causes they will be more easily believed as our brains search for meaning, for the cause, and for a purpose.


There are classic plot devises, structural techniques and archetypal characters that are brought into play to help you shape your story and bring out the emotional intensity needed to engage your audience/ reader/ customer. A real understanding of where emotion come from is a must then.


But in a practical sense you are likely to start with:


A beginning;

This is where we set the scene and identify the conflict to come. This is the ‘will they/ won’t they’ tension. This ensures the audience/ reader/ customer wants to go along on the journey to see what happens.


A middle;

This is where we engage in the struggle. The ups and downs, the twists and turns, the change and development, and importantly the awakening. To truly engage our emotions this is where you are likely to experience the use of, if at all possible, all 5 key senses; sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. It is our emotional intensity that drives our thinking and so our decision making, commitment and persistence.


And an end;

This is where the conflict has been overcome and where there is resolution. At this point there will be clarity on the message (the purpose) you are leaving your audience/ reader/ customer with.


Stories then help connect your audience/ reader/ customer with the strong emotions you wish to convey.  This is often refered to as ‘narrative transport’, the psychological process of creating empathy.  This also aligns your audience/ reader/ customer’s brain with your own, known as ‘neural coupling’ bringing about a sense of coherence.


Alongside empathy and coherence you are also bringing about greater attention, and as already mentioned, the production of oxytocin and dopamine which increases your audience/ reader/ customer’s feelings of generosity and trust.


Bringing it all together


Stories connect people. And as you can see (empathy, coherence, attention, generosity and trust) story telling is a must for anyone looking to influence others, from business owners to politicians, from authors to artists, and anything in between.



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