The Science Behind Storytelling (And How to Use it to Boost your Business)

science of storytelling

Amongst sommeliers and wine enthusiasts, the Riedel glass is legendary and is the glass of choice for anyone who is serious about drinking wine as it was intended to be enjoyed. Each lead-crystal, mouth-blown glass is perfectly shaped to make the most of the flavors of the drink it was designed for.

But, double-blind taste tests that kept the best wine tasters in the world from seeing the shape of the glass (or knowing if it was a Riedel) show that the glasses don’t actually have any impact on the taste of the drink.

So, why do so many wine experts continue to insist that Riedel glasses make all the difference? Because people believe they do.

When a story has been told for decades—that Riedel glasses make your wine taste better—high expectations are set and we actually believe it’s true. Call it a psychological phenomenon or an urban legend, the fact remains: a story makes wine taste better.

Seth Godin once said, “People don’t want to change their worldview; they like it, they embrace it, and they want it to be reinforced… [as people] we’re here for the story and the way believing it makes us feel.”

It’s all about the story. If you can engage people with a good story, you can shape their perception and inspire action in ways that benefit your business. You can also leverage storytelling to more effectively connect with your audience, open listeners’ minds to your ideas, and persuade people to take action.

How do you do that?

It starts with understanding the brain.

The Limbic System

The limbic system processes memories and emotions. It is what allows us to have hindsight and to experience love, anger, jealousy, and the wide range of emotions humans have. It’s also where quick decisions—fight or flight, first impressions, and biases—happen.

When introducing new ideas or trying to persuade someone to do something, you’ll be most successful if you appeal to their limbic system reflexes. You’ll be encouraging them to be receptive to your ideas in the same way they are receptive to their thoughts of basic survival actions like fight or flight.

You can do this with three hot cognitions:

  1. Use Visuals. Make slides and presentations visually appealing and use colors to evoke emotion and tell a story.
  2. Keep numbers simple and provide context. Don’t make your audience do the work. Keep numbers simple and give context.
  3. Engage in storytelling. When you use stories as a vehicle for promoting your ideas, you lower your audience’s defense and help people be receptive to your ideas.

One cold cognition to keep in mind: numbers, mathematics, and complex ideas appeal to the neocortex, rather than the limbic system, and if your message requires a lot of mental effort to understand, many people will just check out.

The idea that storytelling is a powerful and effective means of transmitting information is actually based on science. MRI scans show that when people read words like “perfume” or “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex activates and when someone listens to a character-driven story, their brain is flooded with oxytocin, a love hormone.

If you’re not a natural storyteller, don’t worry! There are some basic models that most successful narratives follow, and they can be applied in the business world.

Two Storytelling Models

1. Story DNA

Author and business storytelling expert Nancy Duarte has created a model that is a mix of “what is” and “what could be” that allows the audience to take time to wonder and allows you to bring your listeners with you on your journey.

An effective story starts with a description of how things currently are, and then it elevates into a description of what could be if your ideas or goals were to become reality. The story oscillates between these two states by reminding the audience of a current condition and painting an inspiring picture of what could be.

This simple pattern can help you make presentations more interesting and your marketing messages more persuasive.

2. The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey takes a character through a series of steps including illustrating the hero’s ordinary world, calling to adventure, facing challenges, and crossing thresholds of transformation, eventually ending in the hero’s success. This plotline keeps the audience listening and fully invested in the hero’s outcome.

In fact, this model is so effective that half of all Hollywood movies and most TED Talks use it. While you probably won’t use all of the steps in the hero’s journey, you can use the basic premise to tell your story in a powerful way.

A Storytelling Case Study

With these two story models in mind, you can share your ideas in a way that engages your audience and opens them up to the idea of taking action.

For example, here’s how Workfront used story DNA and the hero’s journey to illustrate how it helped Craftsy manage doubling of production, eliminate unnecessary meetings, and improve team performance.

Ordinary World: The Current State of your Audience

“In 2011, Craftsy was a company of 20 people. Its nimble team included a production department responsible for the delivery of approximately 1 – 5 online classes per week. To track shoot crews and project schedules, team members used spreadsheets, Google docs, and Google calendars. They also relied on email communications and held a weekly one-hour status meeting to keep everyone up to date. Yet as the online educational craft site grew, its manual processes became inefficient.”

What is: A team is using inadequate tools, time is wasted in meetings, and inefficient processes rule.

Call to Adventure: A Call to Action

“Craftsy evaluated several tools, including Teamwork PM and Basecamp, before choosing Workfront to manage its work processes. One of the primary reasons behind the decision was that the Workfront solution was the easiest to use, so it would be the least disruptive to the team.”

What could be: A user-friendly tool could make the team much more efficient and even increase outcomes.

Crossing the Threshold: Your Idea or Solution

“Craftsy found Workfront added value immediately. It enabled the production team to assess its workflows and adjust them to improve existing processes...Employees rely on custom dashboards and calendars to schedule shoots and assign production activities. They easily update project status and if something changes during an off-site shoot, they simply add comments in real time to alert staff working in the office about what happened.”

What is: Improved processes, everyone has access to information and communications, and real-time status updates are possible.

We continue to tell this story by detailing how Craftsy implemented Workfront and the challenges our work management platform helped the company overcome to ultimately find success.

3 Tips to Start Telling Your Own Story

Telling your own story in a way that enhances your business is all about leveraging the science and art behind storytelling. Here are three tips to help you get started:

1. Think in terms of potential.

To use story DNA, think about a situation’s potential. Put yourself in your listeners’ shoes so you can define their current state and then help them see the possibilities.

2. Look for the challenge you overcame.

Sometimes we forget that the progress we make is all about overcoming challenges, and when we correctly label them as heroic successes we have an enticing story to tell.

3. Appeal to the limbic system.

Use science to your benefit by appealing to your listeners’ limbic system—use visuals, keep numbers simple and contextual, and rely on storytelling.

Everyone loves a good story, and the right narrative is a powerful tool that can help you connect with your audience, encourage them to accept your ideas, and move them to action.