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Studies show that a personal, emotionally compelling story or narrative can open pathways in the brain for facts and figures to be heard and be effective. Knowing this will help you any time you’re communicating with people who aren’t immediately convinced by the evidence of facts and figures. In particular, it can help if you’re pitching a budget for a project you want to develop.

Some scientific hypotheses behind the power of stories.

Recently, scientists have been studying the neurochemical effects of compelling stories, to find out how to construct such stories systematically. Paul Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and his research associates have found that “stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts” (from “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” link below).

In one of Zak’s experiments, subjects watched one of two videos, and their body’s production of oxytocin was monitored. Oxytocin is a hormone that acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. Subjects who watched the video that told an emotionally compelling story, had higher levels of oxytocin. They were more likely to donate part of their payment (for participating in the study) to a charity, and also more likely to donate a greater amount of their payment. On the other hand, subjects who watched the video that had no emotionally compelling story, had baseline levels of oxytocin, and were not similarly moved to be generous.

Of course, a project you’re trying to get approval for isn’t charity. Nor are the controllers of the budget simply donors to a cause. But you can still use the evidence from this study to help you.

A few provisos.

Anyone with a logical mind knows that correlation is not necessarily causation. Oxytocin may “cause” generosity and empathy, or some other mechanism might cause both. Also, oxytocin isn’t the only chemical in the brain that effects positive feelings. Serotonin, for example, affects subjects’ assessment of the moral harm that an action might cause. See Molly Crockett’s research, for example (link below).

However, the behavior is observable, no matter what causes it.

Two secrets to creating compelling stories.

According to Zak and his colleagues, for a story to be personal and emotionally compelling, it must do two things:

  1. it must capture and hold our attention;
  2. it must cause us to emotionally resonate with the story’s characters.

Those two things are what prompt our bodies to produce oxytocin. Oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us; often, such social cues serve to push us to help someone who needs help – and, by extension, approve a budget for a project.

And a third secret.

What Zak doesn’t discuss, at least in his presentations for general audiences, is the effect of our perception of how similar the story’s characters are to us. Sina Radke and Ellen R.A. deBruijn (see link below) have found that the more we see others as part of our “in group,” the more likely we are to be generous to them.

Which means that for a story to be personal and emotionally compelling, it must also do this third thing:

  1. it must present characters that your audience believes to be like them.

Start with the story.

When you’re communicating with people who aren’t immediately convinced by the evidence of facts and figures, start with the story of your main character, someone whose work or life is made better because of the project you’re proposing. Remember that the story must do these three things:

  1. it must capture and hold our attention;
  2. it must cause us to emotionally resonate with the story’s characters;
  3. it must present characters that your audience believes to be like them.

You might be tempted to start with your facts and figures, not the story. After all, it’s evidence that matters, right? But if you’re presenting to people whose primary way of thinking isn’t facts and figures, start with a story that makes those facts and figures compelling, and get the budget for your project.

More about the work of Paul Zak and his colleagues.

Future of StoryTelling: Paul Zak

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

More about the work of Molly Crockett and her colleagues.

Beware Neuro-Bunk

http://www.mollycrockett.com/

More about the work of Sina Radke and Ellen R. A. DeBruijn

The other side of the coin: oxytocin decreases the adherence to fairness norms

An Easy Example of a Truthful, Persuasive Narrative
A Process for Creating a Compelling Narrative

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