There are few things more frustrating than painstakingly crafting and delivering a message to your employees, only to have it fade almost instantly from their memory. Business strategy, core values, compliance requirements – you need these messages to stick!
We’ve written before about how stories make our brains release cortisol and oxytocin, which help your audience focus on and care about your message. To make sure they remember that message long after your story ends, let’s add a third ingredient: dopamine.
Research from psychologist Daniel Kahnemann and others shows that our memory of a story or experience is largely determined by the ending. Dopamine helps explain why.
Dopamine is often simplified down to a “pleasure” hormone that makes us crave rewards and leads to addiction, but the truth is more complicated. It’s less about the moment when we receive a reward, and more about anticipation. Dopamine motivates us to do the work required to get the reward. When you’re listening to a story, “doing the work” means sticking around to see how it turns out.
If cortisol makes you focus on a story and oxytocin makes you care about the characters, dopamine sets you up for the punchline, the triumph, the takeaway which closes the reward circuit – ideally with a happy ending that helps create a positive memory.
However, that doesn’t mean you should tell stories through rose-colored glasses or avoid unpleasant truths. Stories of failure, loss, or embarrassment can be just as meaningful as your latest epic win – if you connect that negative experience to a moment of insight or growth that your audience can learn from.
Your ending doesn’t need to be “happy”, but people should feel better off for having heard it.
Think of it this way: Dopamine makes your audience expect your story to be valuable. Your ending doesn’t need to be “happy”, but people should feel better off for having heard it.
So when sharing your own stories, play on your audience’s sense of anticipation. Signal (but don’t give away!) the ending so your audience knows something good is coming their way. Then, deliver the hit dopamine has them craving and make your story memorable!
—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer
Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.
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