“Sto­ry­telling” has become an indus­try buzz­word that’s bandied about in client meet­ings and mar­ket­ing con­fer­ences. Spurred on by a flur­ry of arti­cles and think pieces, we are cap­ti­vat­ed by the promise of greater engage­ment, reten­tion and influ­ence.

The “why” of sto­ry­telling, how­ev­er, remains elu­sive; we are left in the dark as to how this redis­cov­ered mes­sag­ing tool works. In this col­umn, I’ll rem­e­dy that with some sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tions.

Stories are all about movement

Sim­ply put, sto­ries are instruc­tion man­u­als that explain how we get from Point A to Point B; the key here is move­ment from one state of being to anoth­er.

Ancient fables warn us that if we are arro­gant or greedy, we may end up worse than we began, while epic poems cel­e­brate hero­ism and ded­i­ca­tion, guid­ing us from a dif­fi­cult present to a bet­ter future — from begin­ning to end.

In express­ing this move­ment, sto­ries help us visu­al­ize how we can improve our own lives or avoid an unpleas­ant fate. In addi­tion to the “how,” sto­ries also pro­vide us with a “why.” By imag­in­ing our­selves liv­ing out the con­se­quences of cer­tain choic­es, we are inspired to act in a cer­tain way. It is far eas­i­er, after all, to change our behav­ior if we have a clear goal to move toward.

In a 2014 study, researchers Kei­th Que­sen­ber­ry and Michael Coolsen shed some light on the import of this move­ment for ad per­for­mance. Their research showed that the dra­mat­ic ten­sion cre­at­ed by a com­plete plot is instru­men­tal to keep­ing audi­ences enter­tained and engaged. Ele­ments like humor or sex appeal, on the oth­er hand, had no cor­re­la­tion to ad effec­tive­ness.

Que­sen­ber­ry and Coolsen com­pared the “lik­a­bil­i­ty” of over 100 Super Bowl ads to the num­ber of “acts” each con­tained. They found that ads were more lik­able, and thus more like­ly to be watched and shared if they led the audi­ence through all five points of an arche­typ­al dra­mat­ic plot arc. In doing so, they con­firmed the pow­er of sto­ries to main­tain audi­ence atten­tion and dri­ve action.

A good story moves us, too

Intu­itive­ly, though, we know that there is some­thing more to sto­ries. A good sto­ry can send us into fits of laugh­ter or bring us to tears. Our bod­ies tense when dra­mat­ic music echoes through a dark cor­ri­dor in a hor­ror movie, and we are flood­ed with relief when the hero dan­gling from a cliff is pulled to safe­ty. Psy­cholin­guists call this expe­ri­ence trans­porta­tion.

Trans­porta­tion allows us to vic­ar­i­ous­ly expe­ri­ence a story’s move­ment through its char­ac­ters. When we read a grip­ping nov­el or watch an excit­ing movie, we are drawn into the action, effec­tive­ly trans­port­ed into the fic­tion­al world of the sto­ry. The char­ac­ters’ strug­gles, and their rewards, become our own. But what is it exact­ly that makes sto­ries so com­pelling?

A series of exper­i­ments con­duct­ed by neu­roe­con­o­mist Paul J. Zak may hold the answer. Zak’s research has focused on the role of oxy­tocin, a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter that Zak has dubbed the “neu­ro­log­i­cal sub­strate for the Gold­en Rule.” When we are treat­ed with trust or kind­ness, our brain releas­es oxy­tocin, which then encour­ages us to rec­i­p­ro­cate this proso­cial behav­ior.

Good stories catch your eye, draw you in and move you to action

Zak’s exper­i­ments shed light on three impor­tant stages of our rela­tion­ship with sto­ries: atten­tion, con­nec­tion and action. Of these, the role of atten­tion in sto­ry­telling is already well under­stood. Because it is a scarce resource, we will only focus our atten­tion on those things that seem sig­nif­i­cant, and sto­ries that don’t cap­ture our atten­tion will fail to deliv­er their mes­sage.

In one of his exper­i­ments, Zak mea­sured par­tic­i­pants’ heart rate and sweat pro­duc­tion while they watched short videos. Using these met­rics, he was able to track the ebb and flow of atten­tion through­out the course of each sto­ry. He found that when plots built up sus­pense in antic­i­pa­tion of a cli­max, par­tic­i­pant atten­tion increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly.

An increase in oxy­tocin pro­duc­tion close­ly fol­lowed this uptick in atten­tion, which peaked short­ly after the sto­ries reached their cli­max. As the char­ac­ters on screen encoun­tered and over­came con­flicts, par­tic­i­pants who remained engaged with the sto­ry expe­ri­enced ele­vat­ed lev­els of oxy­tocin. This allowed them to empathize with the char­ac­ters, and to share their jour­ney.

Beyond immers­ing par­tic­i­pants in the sto­ry, the release of oxy­tocin quan­tifi­ably impact­ed their deci­sion-mak­ing. Togeth­er with atten­tion, oxy­tocin lev­els were pos­i­tive­ly cor­re­lat­ed with par­tic­i­pants’ will­ing­ness to donate mon­ey to “help” the char­ac­ters on screen. Zak found that these two met­rics pre­dict­ed sub­se­quent char­i­ta­ble behav­ior with 82 per­cent accu­ra­cy.

Zak con­firmed the link between oxy­tocin and empa­thy by show­ing par­tic­i­pants a series of PSAs after admin­is­ter­ing oxy­tocin to one of the exper­i­men­tal groups. Those par­tic­i­pants who were giv­en oxy­tocin report­ed much high­er lev­els of con­cern for the fic­tion­al char­ac­ters on screen than the con­trol group and were also much more like­ly to act on these feel­ings.

Metaphors are the most basic stories

While the dynamism of a story’s plot is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of its com­mu­nica­tive pow­er, it would be naive to neglect the story’s con­tent. From Zak’s research, we learn that our brains respond to plot move­ment in dis­agree­able sto­ries (think “Schindler’s List”) in the same way they react to more upbeat sto­ries, but we learn lit­tle about a more pri­ma­ry move­ment: metaphor.

“Metaphor” is derived from an Ancient Greek word that means “to trans­fer.” Like mini-sto­ries, metaphors encode com­plex ideas in an often vis­cer­al pack­age. We intu­itive­ly use metaphors to describe how we feel (e.g., “I had a rough day.”), but until recent­ly, we did not under­stand why the use of fig­u­ra­tive imagery was such an engag­ing way to express ideas.

For­tu­nate­ly, some recent neu­roimag­ing (fMRI) exper­i­ments have begun to reveal what makes metaphors so grip­ping. Though each was con­duct­ed inde­pen­dent­ly, togeth­er they show that we process metaphors with sense or motor imagery (e.g., “I saw the light” or “I ran out of time”) in terms of those phys­i­cal expe­ri­ences, rather than as typ­i­cal parts of speech.

In one study, par­tic­i­pants were asked to read scent-relat­ed words like “jas­mine” or “cin­na­mon,” while in anoth­er they lis­tened to tex­tur­al metaphors like “it was smooth sail­ing.” In a third, par­tic­i­pants read words and phras­es that described phys­i­cal move­ment. In all stud­ies, par­tic­i­pants were also exposed to “neu­tral” expres­sions that act­ed as a con­trol.

In every exper­i­ment, researchers found that when par­tic­i­pants were exposed to sense or motor words, their cor­re­spond­ing sense or motor cor­tices were acti­vat­ed along­side their lan­guage cor­tices. Neu­tral words or phras­es did not elic­it a sim­i­lar response, con­firm­ing the link between our pro­cess­ing of phys­i­cal expe­ri­ences and the metaphors that refer to them.

Stories make ideas real for their audience

Oxy­tocin makes sto­ries come to life by build­ing empath­ic con­nec­tions between the audi­ence and the char­ac­ters they expe­ri­ence. The same parts of our brain that we use to smell or to wave also help us under­stand the words we use to describe those expe­ri­ences. While these mech­a­nisms are dif­fer­ent, they both con­tribute to the expres­sive pow­er of sto­ries.

These neu­ro­log­i­cal insights empha­size the sig­nif­i­cance of dra­mat­ic ten­sion and a com­plete plot, and they hint at the val­ue of using vis­cer­al imagery. Most impor­tant­ly, they bring much-need­ed sub­stance to the sto­ry­telling con­ver­sa­tion. In con­firm­ing our intu­itions about its essen­tial qual­i­ties, they have plot­ted a course toward greater under­stand­ing of effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

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