The Simple Science To Good Storytelling

Listening to a compelling story activates different parts of the brain, and luckily putting together a good tale isn't always that difficult.

A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting--only the deeply personal and familiar.”
John Steinbeck


People have always been fascinated by stories. While sitting around a fire, stories were the first and only way to share information, dreams, to entertain, inspire, and connect with others long before humans had any other forms of communication.

Not only is it commonly accepted that good storytelling beats other forms of communication hands down, there is scientific evidence that backs this up. When we receive information from a presentation on powerpoint the language parts of our brain that decodes words into meaning becomes activated.

However, when we listen to a story a lot more happens. Not only does the language processing part become activated, but other parts are used to process the experience of the story for ourselves. For example, descriptions for foods would activate our sensory cortex. Hearing a story puts much more of our brain to work than simply listening to a presentation. Not only can we stimulate various areas of the brain, but if the listener relates to a story, their brain’s can become synchronized with the storyteller’s. Emotions that the storyteller is experiencing can be shared with the listener.

Knowing the influence that telling a good story can elicit, an effective leader can use storytelling to not only share information, but connect with the people around him. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Keep it simple

"Less is more" is a basic rule of good storytelling. Avoid the complex, details as well as the use of adjectives and complicated nouns. Using simple language is the best way to activate regions of the brain that help us relate to the events in a story. Remember that you are not trying to impress, but to share an experience.

Always keep the audience in mind

To be effective, the audience must be able to relate to the story. Talking about an experience on a yacht would not be a good way for the CEO of an organization to connect with front line workers. This would likely have the opposite effect and distance his audience from him or her. Telling a heart-felt story about going fishing with a family member or a grandchild would be much more effective as this would be something many in the audience could identify with.

Use it as an opportunity to share something of yourself

Talking too much about ourselves directly can be viewed by others as being self-serving and turn others off. Skillful storytellers can weave information about themselves they want the audience to know, without appearing to be pretentious. Past stories of struggles, failures and overcoming barriers the storyteller has experienced are excellent sources that help the teller connect with the audience as everyone has experienced these in life. This will compel the teller to appear more human, more like one of them.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

Audiences love speakers who are able to laugh at themselves. Let yourself be vulnerable. Everyone has done something downright embarrassing and silly. Sharing these moments will resonate strongly with the audience.

Share sincerely felt emotions

I have attended numerous seminars from an individual that I have grown to admire and respect. At some point in the workshop, he always shares the story about how his brother and he almost lost their company. At a certain point he tears up as he shares his experience. You can feel the connection with the audience.

Even though I have heard the story a number of times I know he is sincere when he is sharing this and my respect for him increases. If you have strong feelings that come up when telling a story don’t try to suppress them. Of course you would need to manage your emotions as an uncontrolled display of crying or laughing would not create the desired result. However, showing some emotion increases trust and forms a bond between the speaker and the audience.

--Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert, speaker and internationally published author of The Other Kind of Smart, Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success, published by Amacom of New York. He writes a monthly column for HR Professionals Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @Theeiguy

[Image: Flickr user Tucker Sherman]

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3 Comments

  • Judith E. Glaser

    Spectacular article and so relevant to elevating conversational intelligence in a whole organization! Thanks so much…Judith

  • Harvey: Thanks for the reminder! Fact is- they will FORGET the facts and figures but always REMEMBER the story. I have had folks come to me years later and recite a story that I told that I have long since forgotten. There IS power here!