Why We’re Wired For Stories

Why We’re Wired for Stories


photo credit: UNE Photos via photopin cc

photo credit: UNE Photos via photopin cc

A recent study done by psychologists at Harvard University found that we spend, on average, half of our waking time daydreaming. Our minds wander 47 percent of the time we’re awake, which doesn’t leave us much time to focus.

So, as organizations, how do we capture the ever-wandering attention of our audiences? Well, stories are one of the most effective ways to do it; an engaging story will keep the daydreams at bay. Stories have been around for eons, and while we always need hard facts as back-ups, we often fail to realize that the battle for attention starts with hearts.

Stories activate the emotional centers of our brains. Multiple studies have observed brain activity as it consumes a story, and all have found that the brain responds as if it is living the story. If the protagonist is scared, brain activity mimics real-life fear; if the protagonist is angry, our brain responds as if we are angry, too. Our brains behave as if all stories are real (well, the good stories at least).

This emotional aspect of storytelling allows us to retain information at a much higher rate than simple facts or numbers. A study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University found that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than just statistics. Storytelling is a mnemonic device; it helps information stick in our brains.

In fact, the emotional appeal of storytelling can even change our brain chemistry and, consequently, our behavior. A study done by neuroeconomist Paul Zak showed that participants who were exposed to a sad story experienced a spike in oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a chemical related to empathy. Zak found that this spike in oxytocin was directly related to an increased willingness to help or get involved. The moral here is the right story can have material effects.

How to Tell Stories

The best way to impact – and activate – your audience is to tell a good story; the human brain is wired to better retain information when it is activated emotionally.

Fortunately, everyone has a story, and the most successful organizations tell theirs often and well. To help you get started, here are some tips to remember as you craft a narrative:

  • Focus on one protagonist. It’s easiest for us to relate to one single character, and if the audience can identify with a character they are more likely to connect emotionally. Whether it’s someone who has been helped by your organization, someone involved in your organization, or maybe your leadership, it’s best to tell your story using just one strong voice.
  • Speak of the struggle. What good is a story with no conflict? By giving your protagonist plenty of obstacles to overcome, you create a character your audience can relate to and root for.
  • Give details. Any good storyteller will tell you, “show don’t tell,” meaning you should use imagery and description to tell your story. Show the audience what happened and how your protagonist overcame problems by describing situations rather than simply telling them that your character overcame obstacles.
  • Keep it simple. While details are important, make sure your story is clear and straightforward. Your audience doesn’t want to be confused or distracted by unnecessary or unimportant information.
  • Have a moral to the story. What is it you are trying to convey? Why does this story matter? Make sure that you are sending your organization’s message loud and clear. Storytelling is simply a medium used to express what it is your organization needs to say, so make sure the message is the main focus.

Storytelling is an art form that will become easier and easier with more practice, so get started! Spread your work in a way that draws in your audience and encourages them to really listen.

Written by Marissa Higdon

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