Why Great Storytellers Stress Out Their Audience

by Ted Burnham

Three minutes. That’s how long I’ve got before your workplace is likely to serve up a distraction that pulls you away from my message.

So let’s go on a quick camping trip.

See, when I was 15, I went camping with a group of teenagers at the base of a small mountain. There were few adults supervising us, so when we embarked on an afternoon hike to the summit, it was easy for a few of the more adventurous kids to break away from the trail and take what they called “the fun way” to the top.

I stayed with the main group on the trail. We had a lovely hike up and back to basecamp. Night fell; we built a fire.

Hours later, the “fun way” group straggled out of the woods. Breathlessly, a boy named Kenny described the most harrowing part of their adventure.

“We got to a big cliff covered in wet moss,” Kenny said. “Instead of looking for a way around, I decided to start climbing. About halfway up I looked down at the rocks on the slope below me, and realized: If I fall now, I’m probably dead.

Kenny paused, face flickering ominously in the light of the fire. The rest of us leaned in, hearts pounding.

“That’s when the moss under my fingers started to give way…”

Now that I’ve got your attention: The Avanoo StoryApp helps your team focus on messages that matter by sharing stories together. Join us for a virtual town hall or schedule a 1-on-1 demo to learn more.

If you’re feeling the urge to shout, Don’t stop there! What happened next!? – well, so were we. 

Clearly Kenny and the others survived. But his story was a literal cliffhanger, and the tension had us hooked. That’s because, neurochemically, our brains were flooding with cortisol.

Cortisol gets a bad rap. It’s often pigeonholed as “the stress hormone”. Countless clinical studies and wellness seminars have been devoted to helping us avoid its most harmful effects – and for good reason. Some researchers believe runaway workplace stress is literally killing us at unprecedented rates.

But in lower doses, cortisol is useful. It helps us focus, improves memory, and enables optimal work performance.

To a storyteller, cortisol is a crucial tool for catching, and keeping, the attention of your audience. Cortisol is one of three hormones secreted by our brains as we listen to a story. Specifically, it’s released in response to the main character facing threats or obstacles – like Kenny dangling from the cliff.

To a storyteller, cortisol is a crucial tool for catching, and keeping, the attention of your audience.

Just like a real threat, cortisol pulls us into the story and directs us to pay attention. That means we’re primed to focus on the messages the story contains.

So whether you’re hoping to highlight a behavior linked to high performance, demonstrate one of your organization’s core values, or communicate a key facet of your business strategy… remember that part of your job as a storyteller is to stress your audience out.

Like Kenny’s campfire story, the trick is to introduce just enough stress to ensure they focus on your message. Then, as your story continues, the hormones oxytocin and dopamine can kick in to help ensure your listeners also care about and remember your message.


—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer

About Ted

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.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more: Avanoo.com
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