The science of how personal narratives connect and persuade us.
Stories are memorable. About six weeks into building the Blawesome community, I messaged a therapist I wanted to join because of his passion and energy. I listed the features, the tech, and the vision of helping people help people. As we got to know each other, we started sharing stories about our lives and interests. I told him about the moment I started conceptualizing Blawesome. It was when a third teenager told me, within the month, that her eating disorder had been stimulated by looking at unrealistic body images on Instagram. It was 2014, and I had been teaching private, small group Mindfulness for Teens with Disordered Eating classes at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. I would greet teens and their families who looked tired and worried. At the end of each session together, they looked a little more relaxed and hopeful. It planted a seed in my mind that maybe the calm supportive container in our sessions could exist in an intentional corner of the internet. It wouldn’t replace Instagram, but could be a supportive option. As I shared this story with my vivacious, opinionated therapist friend, he said, “Jen! Why didn’t you lead with that? I don’t care about features or slogans, but after hearing that story, I would buy anything you’re selling.” Blawesome had not changed. I had not changed. But his whole perspective had changed thanks to the character-driven story.
Storytelling has the power to engage, teach and inspire. Everyone has meaningful stories, and mastering the art and science of storytelling is a worthy goal for teachers, marketers, coaches, activists, therapists, and anyone with a message to share. Not only does storytelling build trust and empathy - two important and depleting resources - it persuades and teaches memorable lessons, often more effectively than any powerpoint and list of facts. Exploring some evidence-based studies explains why.
Uri Hasson, Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University found that as you listen to a story unfold, your brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller. This builds a powerful connection. His research team also discovered that brain regions responsible for complex information processing become engaged when listening to a story. This means the brain will understand, and remember a complex idea much more effectively when listening to a story, than reading a list of facts. After the exchange with my therapist friend, I did an experiment, and told the same story about the teens to my childhood best friend. She said, “Jen, you have been talking about Blawesome for 18 months, and I just understood what it was at this moment.” The story had captured her attention, harmonized her brain waves with mine, and had activated her complex information processing brain regions. In one short story, she understood the vision faster than dozens of concept and data driven conversations.
Stories don’t only effectively communicate, they also get us into action. Messages that feel like orders or even advice are not always well received, no matter how sound. Stories can shift our views on relationships, health, business, social justice, or the environment. Hearing stories also activates the part of the brain that deciphers, or imagines another person’s motives. This activity helps one see a different perspective, which can shift core-beliefs more easily than simply being told to change. Social sciences have studied the power of narrative for decades. The health sciences are starting to explore how responsibly integrating narrative data can help patients make healthcare decisions. A 2016 study entitled The Importance Of Integrating Narrative Into Health Care Decision Making, published in the Journal of Health Affairs, explored how evidence-based, quantitative data can be confusing or seem irrelevant to patients in the midst of decision-making. In contrast, accounts of illnesses and treatments, cautionary tales, and previous experiences, seemed to provide more compelling and actionable information. Researcher Glyn Elwyn and colleagues note, “Although numbers are powerful, stories trump numbers, and relationships trump stories.” Powerful narratives are inextricably linked to creating closer relationships, and those relationships influence decision-making and action more effectively than almost anything else.
The influence stories have on decision-making and action is related to the neurochemical, oxytocin. Oxytocin signals to the brain “it’s safe to approach others”, creating more trust and empathy. Character-driven stories with emotional content consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand why others behave a certain way in a situation, rather than judge their behavior without trying to understand it. The less we judge, the more we are willing to listen, and even change our perspective. Storytelling has the power to open someone up to a point of view they would have previously disregarded. And the sharing nature of stories makes that power to shift perspectives exponential. We are wired to repeat good stories. And so, good stories spread, and impact the core-beliefs and actions of both the storyteller and the listeners, every time they’re told.
Solid information has its place, but when it comes to influencing attitudes and behaviors, stories most often win. A vibrant, emotional story impacts our brain in a way that’s more memorable, clear, and captivating. Next time you want to share your latest creation, or make an important point, consider weaving in a character-driven story. Now that you know stories make a powerful impact, read Part 2 on Mastering the Skill of Storytelling.