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How Storytelling Impacts our Brain

In 2012, Dr. Paul Zak discovered a remarkable case study of how our brain responds to effective storytelling. In his case study, Dr. Paul Zak brought up a story about a little boy named Ben, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his father was struggling with his son’s condition. Ben was a happy child, but his father found himself in distress, knowing that his little boy did not know how much time he had in this world. Yet, Ben's father realized it's a fantastic thing to know how little time one has left and as they went through the whole process, he stated that he had merged himself with his son as if the father in him was also dying.


Even by reading only just a glimpse of it, you can sense a kind of empathy and that the story was relevant. It’s a story about an innocent, born “unfairly,” taken care of by a resilient father who sought courage in the face of adversity. Anyone can relate to this evocative story because stories generate our emotional or chemical response. Through Dr. Paul Zak's experiment, we noticed that storytelling could be a powerful approach to our daily lives. His experiment shows that dramatic, compelling stories associate with our neurochemicals, namely cortisol (that causes distress) and oxytocin (which helps us empathize). So, is that why we love stories?


As social creatures, we always find ways to care for and connect with other beings. It is basically in our DNA. When stories are taken personally, we value that information more effectively. Usually, we find ourselves more emotionally compelling towards what's happening to those who rather than just knowing the facts. There are two key aspects to a compelling story, attention and a universal story structure.


Let us tell you that the only way to hook an audience to a story is through their attention. Thus, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to increase the tension of the story continually. For example, if you're compelled to Ben’s story, you might've wondered, “How did Ben’s father cope?” or “Why did he feel like he was also dying?”. From our brain's perspective, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal like the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high.



As you attend to a particular direction, you may even begin to resonate emotionally with the story’s character. Once a story has sustained someone’s attention long enough and can resonate with the story, it changes to a universal structure. Narratologists call this condition “transportation” because the story begins to transport the audience into other people’s world. As if you can relate to Ben’s father or feel the character's feeling. Amazingly, our brain can build an emotional connection just through a story.


But not all stories can keep our attention, and not all story levels can transport us into the characters’ worlds. Some narrative theorists find that an engaging story needs to have a structure called the dramatic arc. It goes back to 150 years ago when a German theorist named Gustav Freytag found this structure theory.


Exposition → Rising Action → Climax → Falling Action → Denouement


The exposition is the part where it starts with something new and surprising, which hook the audience. Then there’s a rising action that increases the audience’s tension with difficulties or problems that the characters must overcome, often due to some failure or crisis in the story. After that, the climax happened where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis. How they overcome the problem and their response to the crisis is a falling action, leading to an outcome or resolvent of the story.


So, how can I tell my own great story? How can I improve my ability to tell stories that eventually can persuade people? Well, here are six tips on how to improve your storytelling.


  • Start with a message

Begin your storytelling exercise by asking, “Who’s my audience, and what’s the message that I want to share with them?” Each decision about your story should flow from that question. For example, if you try to convince your colleagues to take risks on a project, you can convey that building a company is mostly by taking smart opportunities.


  • Mine your own experiences

The best storytellers look to their memories and life experiences for ways to illustrate their message. Plus, remember how personal things can capture people’s feelings. So, what events in your life made you believe in the idea you’re trying to share? Think of any interesting emotional entry points to a story. The key is to show your vulnerability. Give your audience a story that appears as authentic and accessible as possible.


  • Don’t make yourself the hero

Yes, you can be a central figure in the story. But the ultimate focus should be on the people that you know, the lessons you’ve learned, and the events you’ve witnessed. In context, make the audience or employees the hero. It’ll increase their attention, engagement, and willingness to buy into your message. Because the more you celebrate your own decisions, the less likely your audience will connect with you and your message.


  • Highlight a struggle

A story with a challenge or conflict simply isn’t fascinating. What challenges do people need to overcome? Perhaps you’re developing a project, don’t be afraid to suggest that the road ahead will be difficult. Tell your audience it’s going to be tough, but also tell them the bright side that you’ll achieve something amazing in the end together. People will become your partners in change because they want to be part of the journey.


  • Keep it simple

If you don’t have that surprising, edge-of-your-seat epic kind of story, don’t push yourself to brag about it. Sometimes, the most successful and memorable stories come from a relatively simple and straightforward message. There's no need to put a certain pressure on delivering your core message. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is putting too much detail that doesn't fit in the context you want to tell. So, work by the principle of “less is more”! Then, transport your audience with a few interesting, well-placed details such as how you felt, the expression on a face, the humble beginnings of your journey — to help immerse your listeners and drive home your message.


  • Practice makes perfect

Storytelling is a “real art form” that requires repeated effort to get right. So, practice with friends loved ones, and trusted colleagues to hone your message into the most effective and efficient story. Keep in mind that the rewards can be immense. As stories are the original viral tool, who knows if your story might end up somewhere unexpected and that'll bring you to new opportunities?



In conclusion, storytelling can be one of the most powerful tools you can use in your daily life. You can tell a great story in your job interviews and getting the job. As long as you consider your audience, identify the moral or message your want to convey, and find inspiration in your life experiences, you’ll figure out the best way to illustrate it. Remember that changing the way our brains work can also potentially change our brain chemistry. And that’s what it means to be a social creature is to connect to care about others, even to strangers. If you want to know more about self-development topics, make sure to stay tuned every week in our blog. Follow our Instagram as well! @baikgp @ayureadypodcast


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