The Science Behind Storytelling: Why it’s the Secret Weapon for Persuasion

“I need a story like yours.”

I had just given a talk to a group of entrepreneurs in San Francisco where I opened the discussion with story, as I always do. A member of the audience approached me and said he wanted to transport his listeners the way I had transported mine. He felt the shift in the room when I shared my three minute tale before launching the workshop, and he knew the science.

Research by Paul J. Zak, PhD has shown that character-driven stories cause the brain to make oxytocin, the neurochemical known to trigger cooperation in others. Oxytocin is also widely known as the “love drug”, and Zak’s work has proven that it stimulates trust, generosity, charitable behavior, and compassion.

How Storytelling Affects the Brain,

How Storytelling Affects the Brain,

So what does oxytocin have to do with your performance in the workplace? And how can a “soft skill” like storytelling be used to help you get the buy-in you need to move an idea or project forward?

Transport your listeners

As a former teacher, I have long used stories as a vehicle to transport my listeners before delivering core content. As a marketing professional, I understand and use the science behind storytelling to help my clients get buy-in, build brands, sell products, and grow their business.

Content is not enough

It feels logical to use data as the cornerstone to persuasion. These are hard facts. They should sway any disbelievers in the room — or so you think. Your audience wants proof. Statistics.

But, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Antonio Damasio, we now know emotions control a larger part of decision-making than before believed. In fact, in the absence of emotion, it’s impossible to make any decisions at all.

Antonio Damasio, Descartes Error

Antonio Damasio, Descartes Error

So it’s not the data that convinces; people decide based on emotions, then use logic to justify their decision. It works the other way too. If your audience is emotionally attached to a belief, using only logic as a means of dissuasion is not going to work. You need to get them to emotionally identify with your belief first. Stories can help you do this.

Stories create emotion

In fact, Zak’s research also proves stories that successfully create tension make listeners come to share the emotions of the characters in them. This is the foundation for empathy, and it’s what gets people to listen. Empathy is hearing and recognizing the emotion behind what someone is saying. In short, empathy gets buy in — an important commodity in the workplace whether you’re informally pitching an idea, giving a presentation, or rallying a team.

Think of the last time you heard a scary story around a campfire. You weren’t actually in danger, but you felt scared because you were identifying with the characters in the story who were scared.

Stories have the power to transport listeners, and cause them to identify with the emotions of the characters in them.

Stories have the power to transport listeners, and cause them to identify with the emotions of the characters in them.

A result of this emotional transportation is that listeners are more likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters after the story is told. Hence the post scary story fear of the darkness beyond the camp lights. Now imagine creating infectious enthusiasm for an idea that continues well after the meeting ends. This is the power of story.

Stories create memories

Stories also aid in memory through imagery by 400%.

You may think your beefy Powerpoint is going to win over the room and stick in people’s minds, but research surveys have shown that while only 5% of audiences could remember statistics, 63% could repeat story elements. The story becomes the Trojan horse, allowing the mind to open, receive a different point of view, and empathize before you drop off the data that aids the rational mind in justifying the decision.

Consider now that you’re pitching a bold, new direction for your team, and you need buy in to move it forward. How can you get them emotionally on board? How will you get them to adopt your point of view? What story will you tell?

Stories are the cornerstone of great communication skills

The data is clear, but really it’s just garnish to what we’ve known for thousands of years — stories are what make people lean in. They are the bonds of culture. They create trust, respect, and credibility for the speaker.

So if you want your coworkers to listen, lead with a great story. Then use data as the pickle to your juicy story sandwich. Their bellies will be full with emotional connection, but they’ll say it was the data that made them leave the five star review.