Barack Obama Is Tapping Into Your Brain

The best communicators are the ones who can create and share a strong narrative story. The best novels are the ones with the most interesting plot and the best speeches are the ones that arouse an emotional response from a crowd.

Last week I introduced Dr. Marco Iacoboni, neurologist and neuroscientist at the Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Iacoboni is a leading authority on "mirror neurons," and after our interview, I realized that people relate to stories because it is part of their evolutionary makeup. Stories cause our mirror neurons to fire at similar experiences, helping us remember and relate.

When humans first started to communicate with each other, they did so by sharing stories. They kept their history and traditions alive by spinning a tale to connect a sequence of events.  Because this has been going on for so long, there is something instinctive in our brains that makes us attuned to narratives and stories.

Stories are how we learn. As Iacoboni explains, "Early on in life we learn a lot of things through stories. As a child, you listen to your parents and teachers and you learn lessons from their stories about right and wrong.  When you go to bed, you are told stories. There is something almost primal about our evolution and development that leads us back to listening to stories."

So to be a great communicator, a person needs to understand the importance of using narratives. To get people excited about a new idea or thought, he or she needs to be a great storyteller.

This is why Barack Obama had so much success during his 2008 campaign for president. He was able to create a narrative that touched the hearts of many Americans, and he was able to connect people on a deeper level than conservative and liberal.  Obama was able to use people’s mirror neurons to naturally and automatically empathize with him. That ability points us to an interesting behavior that relates narratives and mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons reveal why narratives are so powerful 

Iacoboni conducted an experiment in which he showed people pictures that morphed together an image of themselves and one of their friends.  Some pictures were more like the observer and some more like their friends. Then Iacoboni measured mirror neuron activity when observers looked at the pictures. He found that when the picture looked more like the observer, the observer’s mirror neurons fired more strongly. 

In other words, the more someone sees himself or herself in the picture, the more his or her mirror neurons fire. The more people see themselves in you, the more they relate to you. They think, "This person is like me," and since most of us like ourselves, they think, "I like this person. "

Highly influential people tell stories that spark mirror neurons in others by opening their stories with images, people, sounds, smells and feelings that others recognize and can relate to. As Iacoboni says, "Innovators create stories that others want to be part of."

Obama created a story of solidarity, or hope, that many Americans got behind. His narrative sparked millions of mirror neurons when he said, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." Obama tapped into the empathy of his constituents because he was able to build an idea that people could see, touch and feel.

Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can use a narrative within your company to get your employees and customers excited and focused.

1.       Does my company have a story? Where did we come from and how did we get here?

2.       Can I craft my company narrative in a way that other people can relate to?

3.     Can reliving my company narrative on a daily basis make my business stronger and more focused? 


Add New Comment


  • Gašperin Roman

    My name is Gašperin Roman,I am from small country Slovenia.I am a writter and story teller.I was very happy to read how important and influentel is telling stories.Dr. Marco Iacoboni explain everything so simple that everyone can understand.i would like to come and visit him on University and i would like to tell my life"s story to the students.Two years ago I have visited Marocco as a traveller ,but great miracle happened and I fell in love with black traditional woman aisha .we married and now we got a baby .This is miracle of life.I visited Maroccan students and I made one speech to them and i got unbeliveable response from them, which touched my heart deeply.I did not know that i am able to inspire people with telling the life stories.:"no one can do great things , We can do small things with great Love " says ones Mother Theresia ."Yes we can"(Barrack Obama) change the world ", with love ,understanding, goodness. So now is my intentoin to travel the world and talk to the students...because they are our Hope for peacefull life in future .I believe with all my heart in Young people.I believe that everything is possible ,when we do things with love
    With respect Gasperin Roman

  • M.A. Greenstein

    A thoughtful blog but reducing the ancient art of story-telling to one causal chain of neural activity fails to tell the whole tale! Iacoboni's research is fascinating and points as well to the role of neural networks of memory and soma-sensory details that play into the picture (e.g. pattern recognition, sense perception, body language).

    Obama's story-telling gift is rich with potential for execs and entrepreneurs to study. He's a paradigmatic "neuro-leader."

    Off to story tell!

    Dr. G.
    The Greenstein Group, Neuroleadership coaching and consulting, blogging and tweeting on all things neuro and new.

  • Loraine Antrim

    Stories can be the lifeblood of individual presentations and help shape your career, AND they can also help propel a company to greatness. Kaihan, your points about President Obama and Dr. Iacoboni are spot-on, but...the ability to tell a great business story is not an innate skill. You have to work at it.

    As an executive coach for a dozen years, I've worked with many executives to help craft compelling stories, and when it clicks, the right story can move an audience, help close a deal, and rally the troops. It is an art, and those who master it, find storytelling to be one of the most important skills a businessperson can cultivate.

    Thanks for enlightening us!
    Loraine Antrim, Co-founding Partner
    Core Ideas Communication
    "We Create Smartmouths®"