Whilst I got my haircut last week, I sat enthralled as my hairdresser regaled me with fascinating tales from her turbulent life (all 22 years of it). An ex-boyfriend in prison, a Brazilian wax using a wok, a job in a notorious Old Street nightclub aged 15. Her stories all followed a classic model: a hero you could identify with, that hero facing conflict and tension, and finally, resolution. I was captivated.

Everyone loves a good story. Moreover, increasingly, research in neuroscience is demonstrating how fundamental to human understanding storytelling is. Neuroscientist Paul J Zak has shown that a chemical called oxytocin is released in the brain when we are trusted or shown kindness. This chemical enhances people’s empathy and willingness to cooperate with others. Fascinatingly, Zak’s lab has also demonstrated that the production of this chemical can be stimulated with great storytelling.

Their research shows that character driven stories actually cause oxytocin synthesis. This leads to subjects being more willing to help others. More than this, the research found that narratives which hold your attention, by creating tension, make it very likely that you will share the emotions of the characters involved. You will also likely have greater recall of the main points of the story.

So how can businesses harness the power of great storytelling, and the profound effect it has on the brain?

  • Think inside your business first. How did your business start? Can you tell a passionate tale of the heroic struggle to found the company and its journey to where it is now?  Imagine how intensely this form of storytelling could act to engage your people in the values and mission of the company.
  • Moreover, use storytelling to make your people more empathetic and cooperative with each other. A great example of this is LEGO Serious Play in which participants build models and then tell stories about them in a team setting. This builds high performing teams with a shared vision and understanding.
  • When you talk to people outside your business, be it investors, customers or press, tell them a story. One with plenty of human interest and emotion. One that will get the oxytocin flowing. One that will make the empathise with you, want to cooperate with you and remember all the key information you want to impart.

The idea of using storytelling in communications has been around for a while now. However, to make sure you are really unlocking its full power, use my hairdresser’s model: tell character driven stories, with conflict and tension, packed with emotion and with a satisfying resolution.

Photo by Moyan_Brenn/Flickr/CC by 2.0