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We live in stories all day long. We dream in stories all night long. Stories are how we connect in more meaningful ways. So why are organizations like Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist talking about storytelling as a powerful strategic weapon? Storytelling has been influencing behaviors and changing attitudes since the dawn of time, or at least since the first cave paintings of human hands 40,000 years ago.

A good story engages an audience. Many of us have been completely wrapped up in our favorite Netflix series, found ourselves lost in a good book, or completely captivated by a TED presenter.

So what’s happening in the brain that changes the way we feel about a story?

 We’re Not Spectators in a Great Story

Research has shown that we are more than just spectators in a story, we’re participants. We get angry when our favourite characters are angry. Also, we’re sad when they’re sad. We tend to root for the underdog, and we care about the outcome.

Time and time again it’s been shown that stories are a powerful driver of emotional value. In today’s age of experience, great products and services are shaping a new reality in people’s minds. Leading companies aren’t solving problems by focusing on the facts alone. They are focusing on the feelings they want to create and the stories they want their users to tell.

Storytellers create understanding, share ideas and transform moments across cultures – in part because stories change our brain chemistry. The science of storytelling is virtually unmapped. What we do know is stories light up different parts of the brain, change our chemistry, and influence our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.

The Science of Storytelling

Neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, studies oxytocin, which when released by our brain into our blood, creates trust, care, empathy and connectedness to others around us. After years of experiments measuring the release of oxytocin during social interactions, Zak discovered that higher levels of oxytocin are released when people engage in emotional stories.

What’s profound about this discovery is that changes in brain chemistry influenced behaviour.

Zak used well produced, engaging public service announcements in experiments, incentivizing participants with money to pay attention to the videos. People with higher levels are oxytocin in their blood were more likely to donate money to charity. Zak and his team predicted who would give money eighty-two percent of the time.

As Zak says, “This increased concern motivated them to want to help by donating money to a charity that could alleviate the suffering these stories depicted. If you think about it, the donations are quite odd. The narrative is over, but the effects linger.

Follow the Dramatic Arc

People who are transported into a story, drawn into its narrative through a dramatic arc, form powerful emotional connections. When we follow the emotional events in a story, several chemicals are released into the brain changing our brain’s chemistry. Organic compounds like cortisol, created from distress, or dopamine, which rewards us with pleasure, contribute to the neurobiology of storytelling.

Paul Zak learned if the brain is not able to sustain our attention on the story, the mind will find something else to do.

These findings have an impact within the business community. Reward your audience by sharing engaging stories that lead them from the struggle to triumph.

But buyer beware.

As this science progresses, people and companies will explore new opportunities by trying to change your brain’s chemistry. It’s better to focus on ‘hearts and minds,’ providing tours that make people feel good.

What’s your story?

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