Neuroscience Explains Why Storytelling Works

13 August 2021

If you have heard of storytelling but are unsure how you would use it in your business or organisation, here’s a few reasons why it’s part of nearly everything we do at Fishbowl PR.

When done well, storytelling is known to cause real change – to our knowledge, thoughts, feelings and actions. As communications professionals, every time we put together information for a client our objective is to deliver some change, either in understanding, awareness levels or motivation to act.  

Stories work because they elicit emotional reactions that activate your brain to produce oxytocin, also known as one of the happy hormones’.

The neuroscience

But helping people who receive your messages to produce oxytocin is not the end game. Paul J Zak, the founding director of the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Claremont Graduate University, USA, uses his research to help companies develop into high-performing organisations.

More than 15 years ago his lab discovered that oxytocin is consistently synthesized when humans are exposed to character-driven stories.

Emotion in storytelling

He says character-driven stories with emotional content result in better understanding of the key points a speaker wants to make and they enable better recall.

If you put your resources into sharing information, you would like your audience to be able to recall it. In our recent work with North East Water, we asked their customers how they valued the ability to water their garden during a drought? Many of them spoke about the strong emotions they remember from the last time water restrictions affected their own gardens and how clearly they could recall the messages and detail of the restrictions.

Think back to any TED Talk or Toastmasters competition you have heard or watched and you will see Zak’s advice in action: speeches start with a compelling human-scale story of struggle and eventual triumph. Zak says his research shows people are highly attracted to this style of story.

The emotion also helps people to see how they belong or are connected to the story and therefore it has a personal meaning. If they can see themselves in your organisation’s story it might help them to understand how your service or product would help them, or someone they know. When they are emotionally engaged, they may talk about your story with others. This personal endorsement can lead to advocacy and can change attitudes.

Your stories

So, how many stories is your organisation telling?

Staff and internal stories

Organisations have powerful stories. We recently supported Merriwa, which strengthens its purpose by sharing team members’ stories in the staff newsletter, website and Facebook page. They do it really well.

Stakeholder stories for change

When we interview our clients’ stakeholders for our relationship audits, they tell us the story of their relationship with our client. This helps us understand the emotional connection; how and why they feel they belong. We have heard stories about people’s emotional response when someone they engaged to provide a service prioritised ethics or personal care over dollars. Your potential clients are interested in similar stories people tell about what your organisation is and does.

Work we did to support the Central Hume Primary Care Partnership’s (PCP) advocacy campaign in 2020 saw people in local communities tell us about their isolation and how services the PCP supported empowered them to look after their health and wellbeing. These stories were shared as case studies and news stories.

Sometimes the feedback from stakeholders is not positive. When this happens, Managers and CEOs see these as opportunities for improvement and as a result, stories are understood for their role in informing change.

Your organisation also has plenty of powerful stories. Give us a call to discuss how we can help you to capture and share them.