Storytelling and Brain Science
This is Your Brain on Story
Project managers face the daunting task of making the complex simple. They are constantly communicating to various teams involved in a project. And yet, they need to make their communication memorable in a way that their team members recall, with accuracy, and the details of what was communicated. That’s where strategic storytelling comes in.
In this article, Doug Stevenson explains how and why stories work. He cites multiple authors who support his storytelling methodology. You’ll learn about the brain science that explains why stories are memorable and how, if you understand storytelling form and structure, you can be more effective and memorable in your communication.
At the PMO Symposium® 2019 in Denver, Colorado, USA, I conducted a session titled “Lead, Engage, and Persuade With Strategic Storytelling.” It was on the last day on the last morning of the symposium, and my room was packed with eager project managers.
As a project manager you have a challenge that is unique to your role. You must communicate with lots of different people with distinctly different personalities and learning styles. Some are very analytical and love facts and data. Others are big-picture thinkers who are more creative and nonlinear.
That brings me to the subject of storytelling. Why do you think Malcolm Gladwell is so successful? All three of his books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2002), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2007), and most recently Outliers: The Story of Success (2011), are best sellers. The answer lies in the subtitle of his most recent book Outliers: The Story of Success.
Malcolm is a synthesizer, a pattern recognizer. After he’s done his research and compiled lots of examples to illustrate the points he wants to make, he writes his books by telling stories. He’s a good storyteller. Project managers can likewise be more effective communicators if they use stories to motivate and engage a project team, help obtain funding and support from a project sponsor, and engage users and stakeholders.
Daniel Pink, the author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future (2006), states, “Story represents a pathway to understanding that doesn’t run through the left side of the brain.” It is his belief that people who can recognize patterns and make meaning from seemingly nonrelated events and information will succeed while the purely logical left-brain thinker will struggle. In his view, the future belongs to the big-picture thinkers—the storytellers.
From my experience in speaking in front of thousands of business audiences, I have learned that stories are memorable because of the images and emotions contained in the story. The lesson of the story sticks because it’s embedded in an image. The image isn’t a still picture; it’s a motion picture, a movie. While you’re listening to a story, you’re simultaneously watching the story on the movie screen in your mind, in your imagination. Furthermore, a motion picture—a movie—works better than a still-picture image.
“Storytelling enhances your power of persuasion. If you are proposing a product or service, and your listeners aren’t ‘buying it,’ telling them a story of how how the product or service has been used elsewhere ‘proves’ its merit by allowing the listener to test drive the product or service” (Stevenson, 2008).
This is important because, as a project manager, you want your message to be memorable. If you give a boring presentation and people forget what you said the minute you leave the room, the project suffers. People make mistakes. They misinterpret what you said. They go off in their own direction and then you must pick up the pieces and put them back together again.
Context is as important as content. A project is a journey from point A to point B. Point A is the genesis of the project, and the journey to the end result is point B. Point B can be illustrated with the story of a family vacation. If you want to illustrate why a change in the flow of a project needs to be made, find a similar moment in a family vacation where a change in plans was in order. This may seem illogical, but it is precisely because the story of your family vacation seems irrelevant to the point you’re trying to make, which is what keeps people engaged. They are curious to know where this story is going and how it applies to the topic at hand. You provide context for your content once you make the connection with the lesson of your story.
When you understand how the brain of your listener is activated by a story, you can use storytelling to be more persuasive and memorable. If after your presentation no one remembers anything you said, you have failed in your communication.
Let’s test my theory about how memory works. Take a moment now to think about a movie that you first saw over 10 years ago. Have you identified your movie? Now, what do you remember when you recall this movie?
I bet that the first thing that came to your mind was an image, character, or scene. If I asked you to describe the scene, you could do it in vivid detail. You remember the actors, their clothes, the location, the situation, and the emotions. You can see these images as easily now as you did when you were watching the movie.
Let’s debrief this process: First, you recall the scene in pictures and images. Next, you remember the emotions connected to those pictures and images. This is because we see, feel, and re-experience the scene in real time.
What you often remember last is dialogue. But compared to how vividly you remember the images, you probably only remember a few words of the dialogue. Maybe you remember a line that has become famous by repetition, like “make my day” or “life is like a box of chocolates.” Your brain remembers pictures first. It then remembers the emotional context, and finally, it remembers language.
This is a problem. Think about your presentation. What is the percentage of words to images? What does that mean for you if you have too much content, too many wordy slides and no stories? It means that you fail to connect emotionally with your audience and most of your content fades away.
When you tell a strategically chosen and crafted story, however, your chances of having people remember the words and data you want them to remember increases exponentially.
Logic explains. Stories persuade.
In his new book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (2014), molecular biologist John Medina explains this phenomenon. “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the Amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a sticky note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”
That explains why audience members who saw me tell a story in a keynote over 10 years ago approach me like I’m a long-lost friend and say, “I still remember your airport story.” But it’s what they say next that proves the effectiveness of my Story Theater Method as an essential leadership skill. With a smile on their face, they say, “I’m still looking for the limo.”
“Look for the limo” is the branded point of the story. I call it a phrase that pays—mental Velcro that makes the point of your story stick. Because they remember the story, they remember the point. When they remember the point, it becomes actionable. What’s the point of developing a presentation filled with great content if no one remembers what you said, what you wanted them to do, or the changes you needed them to make?
My Story Theater Method is a synthesis of storytelling form and structure, advanced presentation skills, and message branding. The structure makes the story easy to follow; the advanced presentation skills draw the audience into the experience and stimulate an emotional response; and the branded message gives them a call to action that they can apply in their lives.
Marco Iacoboni is a neuroscientist, someone who studies the workings of the brain. In his book, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others (2009), he asks, “Why do we give ourselves over to emotion during the carefully crafted, heartrending scenes in certain movies? Because mirror neurons in our brains recreate for us the distress we see on the screen. We have empathy for the fictional characters—we know how they’re feeling—because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves.”
We don’t just listen to stories; we see images and feel emotions. We have a mirror neuron response causing us to experience the moments in the story as if it’s happening to us. That why, when the storyteller makes their point, it’s memorable. It’s because of this intense level of engagement and participation.
By its very nature, story is an emotionally arousing event that engages listeners and holds their attention. With the advent of cell phones, competing for your audience members’ attention is the first challenge a speaker or leader faces. Good storytelling solves that problem. Then, using the storytelling craft, we can attach meaning to the story with a well-chosen point.
In his book, Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine (1994), Don Norman says, “Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion.” Stories capture the big picture.
Now is the time for you to become a wisdom sharer, a synthesizer, and a storyteller. Simply “getting through the content” is not only ineffective; it wastes everyone’s time. However, simply telling a story will not make you a better leader. It must be the right story, crafted strategically to make the right point, delivered at the right time, and in a compelling way.
I’ll let author Daniel Pink (2006) make my closing argument on the need for project managers and leaders to become storytellers. “Stories are easier to remember because stories are how we remember. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.”
If you need to influence without authority, tell a story. If you need to communicate to a diverse workforce, tell a story. If you need to influence people to change their minds or behavior, tell a story.*******************************************************
The Nine Steps of Story Structure is designed for stories to be told in a business or professional setting. Follow these steps and your story will have a logical sequence, as well as solid dramatic tension. It will also contain a clear and concise, actionable lesson.
- Set the scene – Time and place; when and where?
- Introduce the characters – Describe the main characters.
- Begin the journey – The task, activity, or initiative; what were you attempting to do or accomplish before something goes wrong?
- Encounter the obstacle – The thing that goes wrong or doesn’t go according to plan.
- Overcome the obstacle –What you did to overcome the obstacle.
- Resolve the story – Describe how things worked out in the end.
- Make the point – Choose one lesson or point of your story.
- Ask the question – Use a “how about you?” question to transfer the lesson to the listener.
- Restate the point – Restate the lesson of the story from Step 7 as a call to action.
Gladwell, M. (2002). Tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The story of success. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York, NY: Picador.
Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Norman, D. (1994). Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Pink, D. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Stevenson, D. (2008). Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method: Strategic storytelling in business. Colorado Springs, CO: Cornelia Press.
About the Author
Doug Stevenson, CSP, speaks to leaders, salespeople, project managers, managers, and executives to help them make an emotional connection through storytelling mastery. He delivers keynotes and provides training and coaching.
He is the CEO of Story Theater International, a speaking, training, and coaching company based in Tucson, Arizona, USA. He is the author of the book Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method. He has presented keynotes, customized training programs, and storytelling retreats in 18 countries. Mr. Stevenson is also a sought-after speaking, storytelling, and TED Talk coach for anyone who needs to be more influential and persuasive when they speak.
While he is a gifted storyteller, it’s his ability to teach others how to be gifted storytellers that sets him apart. His storytelling methodology helps you choose craft and deliver stories that make a point, teach a lesson, or sell a product or service.
Some of his clients include Microsoft, Oracle, Google, SAP, Amgen, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Genentech, Pfizer, Red Bull, State Farm, Aetna, USAA, Deloitte, Wells Fargo, Lockheed Martin, Coca Cola, Caterpillar, Medstar Hospitals, The American Medical Association, and hundreds more.
Doug Stevenson, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved. Reprint with permission only.