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The 5 Powers of Story Telling

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Increase the impact of your speech by simply adding a story

story, stories, story telling, speech, theory of mind, motor cortex, sensory cortex, innovation, social, marketing, audience

We humans don’t stand a chance against stories. What our ancestors were doing around the campfire still has a great impact on us.  So if you need to do a speech, keep these 5 powers of stories in mind:

1. Action
Your audience might be passively sitting down when listening to your speech, but you can activate many parts of their brains by telling them a little story. Adding action is always good. Brain scans have shown that when listeners hear a sentence like: ‘John grasped the object’, or ‘Pablo kicked the ball’, our motor cortex gets active. This part of the brain coördinates the body’s movements. Sounds much more attractive than boring bullet point presentations, that just hit the language area in the brain.

2. Senses
The senses have also been shown to be roused by stories. Words like ‘coffee’ and ‘perfume’ can lit up the brain areas connected to smelling. And using a phrase like ‘leathery hands’ effects the sensory cortex, whereas ‘strong hands’ does not. But there are limits. Some phrases, like ‘rough day’, don’t do the trick anymore. We have heard that one so many times that our senses just ignore it. 

3. Compassion
Stories can even make us more social. Dr. Keith Oatley, an expert in this field, found that the more fiction people read, the better are their skills of empathy. Fiction also seems to improve our Theory of Mind, or the ability to construct a map of other people’s intentions. Reading artistic literature was even found to enable people to change their personality a little. These studies are about reading fiction, but telling a story most likely has the same effect. If you tell a good story, listeners also tend to identify with the characters.

4. Connection

If you want a connection with your audience, telling a story can even literally establish this, scientists like Uri Hasson  have demonstrated. The speaker’s and listener’s can get ‘brain-coupled’. In this state the listener’s brain responses mirror the speaker’s brain responses with some temporal delays. Stories have also been reported to help being remembered better and to plant ideas in other people’s head.

5. Innovation
Then the last fruitful characteristic of stories: they stimulate innovation. That is at least what scholars Beckman and Barry argue in California Management Review. Tell your innovation team stories about a product, or the population that is using it, and they will start to get innovative. To envision this process they included the following scheme in their paper. This picture comes in handy, because it immediately teaches you more about telling a story.

story, stories, story telling, speech, theory of mind, motor cortex, sensory cortex, innovation, social, marketing, audience

Photo: Flickr, Holtsman
Source: New York Times
Fargier R, Ménoret M, Boulenger V, Nazir TA, & Paulignan Y (2012). Grasp it loudly! Supporting actions with semantically congruent spoken action words. PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22292014

KEITH OATLEY (2012). The cognitive science of fiction Wiley Wires cognitive science DOI: 10.1002/wcs.1185

Hasson U, Ghazanfar AA, Galantucci B, Garrod S, & Keysers C (2012). Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16 (2), 114-21 PMID: 22221820

Sara L. Beckman and Michael Barry (2007). Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking California Management Review DOI: 10.2307/41166415

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  • jerelo196

    I have to say Katja Keuchenius you have a very insightful and well
    written article. When telling, or I should say presenting a story to a
    group it is crucial to engage the listeners so they are not zoning out. I
    know from personal experience being in a classroom day in and day out. I
    greatly appreciate an enthusiastic speaker who knows how to grasp
    someone’s attention and latch on to for however long he or she will be

    As for the points made, I agree 100%. Action. Yes,
    very important. As you have said when a speaker says: ‘Pablo kicked the
    ball’ I can visually picture such an event (and just a little tid-bit)
    done through the cerebral cortex. One hemisphere of the cortex–temporal
    lobe (auditory information) enables us to hear ‘Pablo kicked the ball’
    and that information is sent to the occipital lobe (visual information)
    so someone can actually picture a young Pablo kicking a ball (a little
    side-note about that actually–Pablo was able to kick that ball through
    prefrontal association cortex which is involved in voluntary movements).

    “The speaker’s and listener’s can get ‘brain-coupled’. In this state the
    listener’s brain responses mirror the speaker’s brain responses with
    some temporal delays”.

    I want to share a nice little bit of info..

    quote above definitely stood out to me in the article for the thalamus
    would play a role here (which is part of the limbic system) How some may
    wonder? Well the thalamus processes motor information and is known as
    the sensory relay station where attention, motivation, and emotional
    sensations are regulated. For example, say the presenter is a loud
    talker and projects a lot of strong emotion, the thalamus had the
    ability alerts the listener through neural pathways to pay attention and
    stay engaged with the conversation.

    Now the
    amygdala also has a role in this. Say the very same speaker I mentioned
    makes a comment during their speech that offends the listener. Well the
    listener certainly would not be smiling, the amygdala enables through
    electrical stimulation in the temporal lobe for that listener to feel
    disgusted and angry. That disgust and anger fuels another rather
    important part of the brain to activate the hypothalamus which activates
    an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

    As I have mentioned earlier, very insightful post and highly recommended.

  • Katja

    Hi Jerolo,
    Thanks so much for the nice comments and additional information. You seem to know quite a lot about the subject. Nice to read your vision on storytelling and good luck in the classroom!