Why Your Brain Loves Good Stories

It is quiet and dark. The theatre is suddenly silent. James Bond lays low along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. In the audience, heart rates rise and palms perspire. The result: an amazing neural ballet in which a story line dramatically alters the activity of people’s brains.

Many business people have discovered the power of story-telling in a pragmatic sense. They understand how influential a well-designed narrative can be. But novel science work sheds light on exactly how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.

Think back to your childhood. How wonderful was it to lose yourself in a good story? And the feeling is just as great today. Telling stories is one of the best ways to make an idea resonate with your audience. It is one of the most important things that you, as a public speaker, can do to make your presentation memorable.

A study conducted by Chip Heath gives us phenomenal insight on how stories help people remember information better than any other delivery system. Chip Heath teaches a class at Stanford University. For one exercise, he divides the students into groups of six to eight and presents them with statistics on crime patterns in the United States. Half the students in the group are told to make a one-minute presentation in support of the premise that non-violent crime is a serious problem. The other half are asked to create a one-minute presentation arguing that non-violent crime is not a serious problem.

After everyone has presented, the students vote for the person in their group whom they thought was the best. Then, the exercise is over . . . or so they believe.

Chip continues on to another topic and often shows a short video to distract the students. He then unexpectedly asks them to write down everything they can remember about the speeches they heard. 

This is how Chip Heath describes the results:

The students are flabbergasted at how little they remember. Keep in mind that only ten minutes have elapsed since the speeches were given. Nor was there a huge amount of information to begin with – at most they’ve heard eight one-minute speeches. And yet the students are lucky to recall one or two ideas from each speaker’s presentation. Many draw a complete blank on some speeches – unable to remember a single concept.

But here’s where it gets really exciting in terms of the power of stories:

In the average one-minute speech, the typical student uses 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten tells a story. Those are the speaking statistics. The “remembering” statistics, on the other hand, are almost a mirror image: When students are asked to recall the speeches, 63% remember the stories. Only 5% remember any individual statistic.

This study is an absolute gem to demonstrate how powerful stories can be. Yet, many speakers shy away from stories, choosing instead to immerse their audiences with statistics and other bland details. By telling stories, on the other hand, you use one of the most effective tools in a speaker’s arsenal to persuade your audience.

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