The incredible science behind stories

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today,”

(Robert McAfee Brown)

Stories are one of the most effective ways to bring about behaviour change: they’ve been used to drive up results for low-performing students, increase donations for charities and bring down mortality rates on oil rigs.

Whether you need to sell a product or change behaviour, stories are vital to your success.  Here you’ll find 7 reasons why having an anecdote up your sleeve will immediately change how people perceive you and make people buy your ideas, services or products.

1.  Stories stimulate hormone releases that change how you feel – and drive action

Scientists have discovered that stories cause specific hormones that allow us to connect with the protagonist. 

So when you’re on the edge of your seat watching Tom Cruise scale up the Dubai skyscraper in Mission Impossible, cortisol is surging through your system.  When he reaches the top safely, there’s a dopamine kick from a resolved problem. 

Funnily enough, that’s the same hormone you get from shopping and gambling, but I’d think the dose would be higher watching Mr Cruise than it would be if you’d snagged a jumper on 

Endorphins heighten when watching a comedy: they’re the ones that make you laugh.

The empathy and mental imagery than ensue mean that the story’s reality becomes that of the listener. In 2013, Dr Paul Zak, a founding pioneer in Neuroeconomics found that sharing a short film about a father and his cancer-blighted baby son, elicited a greater amount of two hormones in the brain:  cortisol, sparked by the distress of a tragic situation and oxytocin, triggered by feeling of care, connection and empathy. 

The oxytocin and cortisol mix that results in empathy provokes what psychologists call transportation, which invites story receivers into the action it portrays and, as a result, makes them lose themselves in the story.

Furthermore, oxytocin increases open-mindedness.

Zak and his team realised that they could predict with an accuracy rate of 80% how likely people would be willing to donate based on the chemical reaction incited by the story.

At work, telling a story of how Tom lost his foot in a mining accident, due to breaching health and safety rules, would be much more effective than giving statistics of health and safety related incidents at work.


2. Stories change behaviour

You’ve read above about how stories increase the chance of charity donations.

Another study by researchers at Columbia University and Washington University found that low performing science students increased their grades after reading about the struggles of famous scientists.

In the workplace, tell your audience about the time that you didn’t buy travel insurance, broke your legs in Albania and ended up paying an arm and another leg to get home .


3. Stories develop empathy

Uri Hasson headed a study at Princeton, examining the neuro-chemical processes of a storyteller and her listeners, discovering that the areas lighting up in storyteller’s brain exactly mirrored the stimulated areas of listeners, facilitated by mirror neurons, adding weight to the idea that communication is really “a single act performed by two brains.”   That means what she felt, they felt, thereby causing the audience to empathise.

If you want the audience to feel your pain and joy, a shortcut could be to electrocute them, then offer them a blank cheque.

Alternatively, you could choose a safer method that will get them to act: tell that story.  They’ll live the joy and pain with you.  The hormonal imprint of a story lasts longer than if you were to merely relay facts, making the message memorable, long after it’s been told


4. Stories can simplify the complex through a metaphor

A simple story can be used to relate the unfamiliar as in the tale of the pig farmer who realised that overnight his stock was worth half .  On the strength of the potential sale, he’d taken out loans for barn repairs and equipment.  The debts stayed the same but his income was halved, pushing him into further debt.  

This story was used to explain the effect of the devaluation of oil in Russia.  A metaphor, that those unfamiliar with macro economics would be able to digest.


5. They don’t tell you what to do but make you feel the solution

If you don’t buy this anti-virus package for your computers, you’ll be in trouble’, is an unremarkable, although possibly logical, statement.

However, you could instead tell the story of how using BungleBoo Anti Virus system allowed a virus into your computer like water though a sieve, destroying your client base, all your documents and forcing you to have to purchase a watertight new laptop.

This is not a claim but a personal anecdote that is relateable and undirective, hence defences would be down.

It also triggers something that psychologists call the ‘negativity bias’.  This is the natural tendency to be more affected psychologically by negative events when all facts are equal.

As a result, we’re attracted to negative stories like this because we’re afraid this could happen to us.  This is largely because we want to imagine how we would deal with that dragon: we know it exists, but the relief comes from how it’s beaten.

The negative bias in your audience will stimulate the need to avoid trouble and, therefore, be more likely to propel them to action.


6. If you want to make a memorable point build up a sense of anticipation

When I give short seminars on cross cultural pitching, I tell half the story of Richard, who worked for a large US bank and was trying to tie up a deal in the United Arab Emirates. He had to fly to Abu Dhabi several times before he won the multi-million dollar deal.

However, it wasn’t his PowerPoints that won the day but 3 small adjustments I helped him make during his pitch. 

I start the story of Richard at the beginning of the presentation but don’t complete the story until the end.  Because an incomplete story is frustrating, the audience are desparate to know what happened.  

Once the satisfying conclusion comes, there’s a feeling of reward that helps make the story stick.  If you remember from point no. 1, that would be the dopamine spike from a rewarding conclusion.


7. Potential customers can identify with an issue and more likely to want to buy from you

Instead of ‘selling’ a product or service you could give a case study of a problem that existed before.

People can relate to a commonly shared problem (those mirror neurons again, from point number 3) and will act on an issue to which they can relate.  If they empathise with it, you only need to say how you’d work with them because they have an instant picture of what you do and the challenges you can help them overcome


You can use stories in so many areas, including:

  • digital storytelling,
  • pitching and presenting
  • steering others to change behaviour
  • interviews
  • pay reviews
  • performance reviews
  • project updates


Stories are so strong that they should come with a warning sign: they overpower the facts. This is why the story will be more powerful than the pie chart and is the reason propaganda is so insidious: people are willing to overlook facts, because of a repeated narrative.

Facts push out information, stories pull people in. Using a story as the pull – and not as a smokescreen – for dubious facts adds to your credibility.

I’ve helped clients find their stories so they could win millions of pounds in pitches as well as well as help their teams make decisions.  Find out how to tell a story or contact me if you need personal help in finding the right story and telling it so it hits the spot.



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