Great leaders know it’s not enough to simply deliver key messages to your employees. You need them to actually care about – and act on – those messages.
Stories are a powerful way to ensure people care about the same things you do. To understand why, just ask neuroscientist Paul Zak.
A few years ago, Zak was sitting in a cramped airplane seat, weeping uncontrollably. He’d just finished watching Million Dollar Baby on the in-flight entertainment system, and the intense drama of the film’s father-daughter relationship had struck a chord.
As Zak brought his sobbing under control, he wondered how a fictional story could have such a profound effect on his real-world emotions.
Zak knew our brains are wired to care about people who treat us nicely, which makes us want to reciprocate – that’s how we build trust and develop “pro-social” behaviors like collaboration and teamwork. He thought stories might be able to trigger those same neural circuits.
So he tested it. He showed people a video of a father telling a heartbreaking story about his son’s terminal illness versus a video of the same father and son simply walking in a park. Just as he’d suspected, the video with the story made people more likely to care about the characters. It even changed their behavior, making them more willing to donate money to charity.
Beneath it all was a hormone – oxytocin – that’s released during social interaction. Oxytocin is believed to drive the “mothering” bond; it’s what makes baby monkeys (in rather cruel experiments) crave cuddles even more than food. It’s also one of three hormones, along with cortisol and dopamine, that our brains release when we listen to a story.
We’ve written before about how cortisol helps us focus on a story; oxytocin makes us care.
fMRI scans of brain activity show oxytocin enhances neurocoupling – the tendency for our brains to light up in the same areas whether we’re the one telling a story or listening to it. This means that when a storyteller describes an experience they or their characters had, we don’t just understand it intellectually; we actually experience it ourselves. And oxytocin turns that experience into feelings of trust, goodwill, and empathy.
Cortisol helps us focus on a story; oxytocin makes us care.
That means stories allow us to bond with each other and build relationships. We learn about the storyteller and/or the characters… we share their experiences… and we end up feeling closer to them. And it’s no secret that we tend to care about the things that people we feel close to care about.
So if you want people to care about your message, share a story that illustrates why you care. Let your audience feel what you feel. Their own brain chemistry will do the rest!
—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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