The Art and Science of Good Story Telling

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brain_heroimage_dynamic_lead_hero_imageTelling a good story can be a powerful thing.

Most of us remember being read to as a child, that warm feeling of listening to our parents tell us about magic, imagined worlds. A great film or novel can stick with you for days, and often a lifetime. In business, good stories can land you a new job, or rally your team behind an intimidating new project.

No doubt, for content marketers and brands especially, great story telling makes all the difference. While improving your creativity is all about discipline, the psychology of how your creative efforts are experienced is important to understand and apply to your day to day life. After all, it doesn’t matter what your company is doing, if you aren’t telling your story well, who is listening?

Story Telling and the Brain

To start let’s take a look at what’s going on inside our heads when we are given a story. As Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich points out in his Lifehacker article on the science of story telling, the reason we feel so engaged when we hear a story, read a novel or see a play – whenever we experience a narrative – is quite simple. When we are being told a story, our brain experiences it as if it was really happening to us.

For years, we’ve known the centres for our brain used in decoding language were instrumental in understanding a story. But what gives the story its deeper impact is a wonderful, explosion of additional brain activity, totally unassociated with language or logic. What happens is all areas of your brain that would be activated if the event was truly happening to you, get turned on when hearing the narrative. Your brain lives it like it was real.

In a 2006 study, researchers asked participants to read words with strong odour associations, while they were wired up to a brain scanner (MRI). What researchers saw was the subjects’ olfactory cortexes lighting up. When subjects saw words like “chair” or “table” those same areas stayed dark.  Similar studies showed the same impact when subjects were given phrases that had action in them, such as “John kicked the ball,” the motor cortex associated with “kicking” lit up.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. (Source)


Story and the Power of Motivation

Other studies have suggested the story isn’t just causing additional brain activity – but it is one of the most powerful ways to actually influence thought and behaviour.

In his book, Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, Peter Guber argues that humans aren’t moved to action by “data dumps,” PowerPoint slides, or spread sheets. Rather, humans are moved by emotion. And the best way to get at people emotionally, he says, is to tell them a story.

Science has backed up Guber’s argument in recent years. Psychological studies repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by the story. The more immersed you are in it, the more you turn to putty in the story teller’s hands. What is happening is the way you process information gets altered radically. Your defences drop, and you even ignore inconsistencies that you’d notice in an otherwise less-stimulating story.

This helps explain why “data dump” presentations are so ineffective in inspiring change. Our brains simply aren’t wired to casually accept a message when presented dryly. To the contrary, when we are given those big bullet lists, we become skeptics. We prime ourselves to do everything but whole heartedly get involved with the idea being presented. A good story makes those defenses drop, which is why Guber uses the metaphor of the Trojan horse throughout his book. It’s a way to sneak past the gate keeper.


How to shape a powerful story

It’s great to know why we experience stories so deeply, and it’s helpful to know just how powerful they are. But how can we become better story tellers?

While there really is no formula for good story telling – otherwise, Hollywood wouldn’t put out so many costly flops – there are some useful tips and concepts to keep in mind.

One of the biggest culprits in bad story telling is the use of stale, cliche language. Words have the power to elicit emotion, but it’s been shown that certain phrases and metaphors can actually lose their power to do so over time. George Orwell, in Politics and The English Language, famously criticized the use of vague, cliched imagery. Any marketer can attest to this. How many times must we “optimize” something, and “leverage value”. These phrases are tough to avoid in our business. I’m guilty of it, too. But Orwell would point out that by relying on these pre-fabricated thoughts, we’re not just being lazy, we’re losing all the emotional potency that speech contains.

“[No one] seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. […]  there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” (source)

Another author, Kurt Vonnegut, best known for Slaughterhouse Five, and Cat’s Cradle, had a great appreciation for the art of putting together a powerful story. He outlined, in a much quoted essay, his rules of writing (My favourite, #3: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”) But perhaps more interesting, and somewhat counterintuitive, was his rejected master’s thesis detailing a scentific method to creating a good story. Vonnegut put forward the idea of analyzing the story on a grid.  On the Y axis was the continuum of Good and Ill Fortune. The X axis moved from the beginning to the end of the story. Using examples from popular stories, he argued we can actually chart out the shape of stories, and that certain shapes show up again and again in popular culture. He says there should be no reason we can’t simply dump this information into a computer to spit out a good story.

vonnegut_boymeetsgirl vonnegut_cinderella vonnegut_maninholeVonnegut later presented this concept at a talk he gave, captured in this video – which is well worth the watch, if only to see his clever, hilarious ability to distill classic works of fiction down to squiggles on a chart.


Whether Vonnegut, in his usual wit, was just being ironic in his view on literature, or whether he truly believed that great stories are fundamentally just great formulas, is besides the point. It is intruiguing to note the emotional power of these basic shapes in stories. It allows you to step back and use this insight when crafting your own stories, speeches, slide show, or maybe just when writing your next email. As you build up your creative habits, understanding the science and art of storytelling is a great complement.







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