How storytelling lights up your audience’s brain and makes your message memorable

According to one theory, humans have evolved to a superior intellect (compared to our primate cousins) because we developed the ability to make tools like clubs, spears, pots, and back scratchers (for those hard-to-reach places). Tools allowed our long-ago uncles and aunties to augment their physical potential beyond their bare hands and feet. But the simple use of tools isn’t the cognitive differentiator between animals and humans because other animals use tools too. So why aren’t we sitting with ravens, orangutans, and otters around the office meeting table, discussing difficult, important things like what to eat for lunch?

That’s because what differentiates animals and us is not just our tool-using ability; it’s also our ability to tell stories. Humans have been using stories to pass knowledge to the next generation for thousands of years. Our survival as a species depended on listening, visualising, understanding, and internalising these stories. Ugga, the preteen caveman from before the invention of grocery stores, remembers his elders telling him of the forbidden orange on the foothills of the forest. The elders told the story of when Ugga’s brother, Yougga, could not resist the temptation of the very orange orange. He took a bite and hallucinated, then talked about snakes for days. It was a cautionary tale of wisdom that Ugga then passed on to his many children as they listened to his stories around a warm fire (while eating apples, not oranges). 

And so, when one tells a story, people come together to listen and partake in the story. It cultivates a sense of community and togetherness, which is crucial to ensure that our ancestors have the numbers to protect and provide for our young and elderly. Because storytelling is so central to our well-being and survival, it’s no wonder that our brains are highly evolved to react to stories. 

But what does this have to do with you, the corporate warrior, the HR professional, the mid-level manager, or the CEO? 

What if you had the ability, with a story, to switch on whole swathes of your listener’s brain; to widen their eyes and prick up their ears so that they are ready to receive your message? What if you had a light switch for the brain?


Storytelling engages the default mode network (the light switch of the brain)

Storytelling engages the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the brain is at rest, daydreaming, or lost in thought. When we hear a story, our DMN lights up, our imagination becomes vivid, and our ability to simulate the story’s events is enhanced. When the DMN is lit up, we can better understand and remember the story (and the message), feel more connected to the characters and events, and empathise with their situation. The ability to understand and relate to another person without needing to experience the same situation is critical in leadership and business roles. Imagine the utility of being able to get your audience to empathise with your point of view anytime you need to persuade, inspire, or influence. 

The firing of the DMN sections of your brain allows you (and your audience) to be imaginative and conjure new ideas to solve (even new) problems. It allows people to feel and react to the emotions that the story evokes. Remember having tears run down your face as you listen to a moving story? Bullet points never get such an effect.

After listening to a tragedy unfold, where John Wick loses his car and his dog, were you not gripped by determination and a lust for justice, just as the character was, even though nobody stole your car or took your pet away from you? 


Stories and their monumental effects on your brain

When someone listens to factual statements of information, e.g., that ball is red, two parts of the brain come alive; language processing and language comprehension.

However, when someone is listening to a well-told story, seven parts of the brain are engaged:

  1. Language processing (Broca’s area): This is also known as the motor speech area that regulates the vocalisation required for speech. 
  2. Language comprehension (Wernicke’s area): A part that contains motor neurons involved in speech comprehension. 
  3. Movement (Motor cortex): An area within the cerebral cortex of the brain that is involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements. 
  4. Sounds (Auditory cortex): A part of the temporal lobe that processes auditory information. 
  5. Touch (Sensory cortex and cerebellum): Cortical areas that are associated with sensory function.
  6. Scents (Olfactory cortex): The portion of the cerebral cortex concerned with the sense of smell.
  7. Colours and shapes (Visual cortex): The primary cortical region of the brain that receives, integrates and processes visual information.

When seven parts of the brain are engaged versus two, you are more likely to understand the context, synthesise alternate scenarios, and remember and recall details better.

When all these mental areas are lit up, many chemical reactions happen in the brain. Among them are:

  1. Oxytocin: Enhances feelings of trust, empathy, and generosity. The more connected we feel with people or characters, the more oxytocin is released. 
  2. Dopamine: Released when we feel pleasure. 
  3. Endorphins: Inhibit pain signals, acting as a sedative (to pain, stress, fear). 
  4. Cortisol: Released during times of stress, prompting us to take action.

Storytelling is one of the most influential aspects that got the human race to where we are today; storytelling makes us uniquely human. Incidentally, when you use stories at your workplace, you become more human, demonstrate empathy, and are more likely to influence positive action successfully; because stories are the light switch to the mind.

Build your people’s ability to become better storytellers with The Business Storyteller. For any enquiries, talk to Mints at [email protected]