The Science of Storytelling (Jack and the Beanstalk)

Do you remember the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk? A boy named Jack lived with his mother, and when their cow stopped giving milk, Jack’s mother tells him to take the cow to the market to sell. But on the way, Jack meets a man who exchanges magic beans for the cow. His mother is so mad that she throws the beans on the ground and sends Jack to bed without dinner. But overnight those beans grow a giant stalk, and when Jack climbs it, he experiences some big adventures.

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed stories in every nook and cranny of my life. They may not be fairy tales, but they sneak in at the most surprising times. They are in songs, movies, tv shows, and even commercials.  Our team is currently working with a creative client that would like to tell a story about a current business initiative. We’ll weave that storyline through the training we develop and deliver. As we are working through that process, it seems people are constantly writing and talking about the importance of stories (including my colleagues Betsy and Martha). So what makes stories so special? And how can they be better utilized in your organization?

There are a few key things we know about storytelling and the significance it has on influencing people:

  • Our brains and bodies chemically and physically respond to stories. Think of the last exciting movie you watched. Did your heart race? Were you moved to tears? Neurological research shows that our brains produce oxytocin when we experience trust or kindness. Oxytocin enhances our empathy, thus allowing us to experience another person’s emotion. How did you feel when Jack’s mom was so mad at him?
  • Our brains process stories like they process real life. Although we know the difference between a story and what is happening in real time, neuroscience tells us that we create emotions and responses in the same way we would if we were “living it”.
  • Stories engage our right-brain. Since the right-brain is in charge of imagination, we kick our empathy into gear and become a part of the story. The right-brain allows us to put ourselves into a situation and think about how we’d react and what we might do. Would you have climbed the beanstalk?

I’ll plant this seed like the tale of Jack in the Beanstalk, and we’ll come back to water it and let it grow:

  1. Are you using stories to lead change or communicate key messages?
  2. Have you tried using stories in something as simple as a presentation of facts? A report with metrics?
  3. Do you know how to craft a compelling story?

The next blog in this series will walk through how to develop stories to influence change. Join me on the adventure!