A good story can make or break a presentation, an article, a conversation. But why is that? When Buffer co-founder Leo Vidrich started selling his product with stories rather than a list of benefits, the number of registrations exceeded every conceivable and unthinkable limit. Here he shares with us the science of why storytelling is so unique and yet powerful.
In 1748, English politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, spent a great deal of his free time playing cards. And got the unheard of pleasure of being able to play cards with one hand and have a snack at the same time. So he had an idea: put a cutlet between the slices of bread, and then you can both play and eat at the same time. And his invention of the "sandwich," as the sandwich became known, turned out to be one of the most popular food innovations of the Western world at the time.
You know what's interesting? That you will now never forget the story of who invented the sandwich. Well, or at least it's much less likely than when we would just present the information as points or bare facts.
For more than 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, storytelling has been one of the fundamental modes of communication. But how can we use storytelling to our advantage?
Our brains love stories: how they are activated by hearing them.
We all love hearing stories, whether it's a novel, a movie, or just something that explains a friend. But why do we get more involved when we hear a story about an event?
Actually, it's pretty simple. If we watch a presentation "point by point," a certain part of the brain that scientists call Broca's area or Wernicke's area is activated. Generally speaking, the standard items affect the language part of our brain, where we convert words into meanings. That's it, nothing else happens.
But when we are told stories, things change dramatically. Not only the linguistic functions of our brain become more active, but all the other parts that would be activated if we lived the story in reality.
If someone tells us about how incredibly delicious the food was, the sensitive part of the cortex turns on, followed by the motor part. "Metaphors like 'The singer had a velvet voice' and 'His hands were rough' appeal specifically to the sensitive part. So, we scanned several of our participants as they read the sentences, "John grabbed an object" and "Pablo struck the sword." The results showed that the area of the brain that coordinates body movements became active.
A story can get the whole brain working. And even more than that: when we tell a story to someone who has strongly influenced our worldview, we have the same effect on them. The brains of the one who speaks and the one who listens can synchronize, says Princeton's Yuri Hasson: "When a woman spoke English and the volunteers understood her, the same parts of her brain became active at the same time in both her and their brains. By telling stories, she was able to 'put' ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' heads."
You can help people experience almost everything you've been through. So we know that stories are more digestible than facts. But the question remains. Why?
The answer is very simple: we're built that way. If the story is simple, it's the connection of cause and effect. That's how we think: we create stories in our heads all day long, going to buy vegetables or planning household chores, and for every action or conversation we again create stories. Personal experiences and gossip are 65% of our conversations.
So, whenever we hear a story, we try to connect it to our pre-existing experiences. That's why metaphors work so well. As we try to remember similar experiences we've had, the "brain islet," the part that links what we've heard to the same feelings of pain, joy, or dislike, is activated.
An interesting experiment was conducted at Yale University: volunteers were asked to hold a coffee in their hands while they were told about a person. Depending on whether that coffee was cold or hot, they described the person as pleasant or not.
How this could be used.
Have you ever had a situation where a friend has shared a story with you, and then two weeks later you give them the same thought, but think it's yours? It's totally normal, but at the same time, it's the most effective way to get people to share your thoughts and ideas, as if they were actually their own thoughts. And the simpler the story, the more it "sticks."
And a quick fact lastly: the standard clichés we use every day, like "hard" day, are perceived by the brain as memorized and do not evoke any emotion. Keep that in mind when you write your next story.