Enter ‘storytelling for business’ into the Amazon search bar and you will find pages of books proclaiming that stories can drive your brand and/or make you a better leader. One of these books –Story Factor by Annette Simmons – was even included in the 100 Best Business Books of All Time. And then there are the TED talks and the blogs and the training courses… So, facts and data may have been the dominant persuasive forces for a while, but stories are back, big time.
I’m glad about that. My own experience is that stories are powerful and I’ve seen enough bar charts and shaky laser pointers, thanks all the same. However, I was scientifically trained and so my mind won’t let me just blindly accept the power of stories. ‘What if you are more susceptible to stories than others?’ it asks. It wants to see the science.
It turns out that there is now quite a bit of neuroscience that examines, directly or indirectly, what happens to our brains when we hear a story.
One fascinating study was conducted by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and colleagues. She works out of the group led by eminent Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. More than 20 years ago Damasio did the pioneering work to show that that emotional mind collaborates with, rather than competes with, the rational mind during decision making. This work is brilliantly described in his book, Descartes’ error.
In the Immordino-Yang et al study, researchers told volunteers a number of true stories selected to inspire either admiration or compassion. Afterwards, the researchers conducted a battery of investigations, including physiological assessments (e.g. heart rate), brain imaging and 1:1 interviews.
You can see Immordino-Yang speaking passionately about this work on The Science Network. She is most enthusiastic when she talks about all of the disparate areas of the brain that are stimulated by these stories (i.e. not just the areas associated with higher cognition) and also about the physical embodiment of emotion (i.e. we actually do respond to stories in our guts).
The most interesting part for me though, was the part about the processing of the story. First the participant described an emotional response to the story. Second, the participant developed a hypothesis about the actions and motivations of the subject of the story. Next the participant paused to reflect, and then finally he or she described what they would personally do differently as a consequence of hearing the story.
The scientist in me says that these results are story specific. I get that, but unfortunately I don’t have my own MRI machine (yet). I do think we can begin to make some inferences about the power of stories from this study: facts make us think, but stories inspire us to take action.
And isn’t that exactly what leaders need?