What Neuroscience Tells Us About The Power Of Narrative To Persuade

The next time you need to persuade someone to take action with you, to capture their attention and their hearts, light up their brain with story. (Illustration: Elisa Riva, Pixabay)

The next time you need to persuade someone to take action with you, to capture their attention and their hearts, light up their brain with story. (Illustration: Elisa Riva, Pixabay)

I'm kind of a nerd about story and the brain. It probably stems from my very first career, in occupational therapy, where I delved into neurophysiology and had the amazing experience of dissecting a human brain. (The career itself didn’t last long and there’s a story behind that. It’s coming up in another post!)

There is significant scientific research focused on how stories build connections and persuade people to take action or change an attitude.

Here are just two of many findings and additional resources for those who want to dig deeper.

1. Building trust and cooperation: Your hormones and story

Paul Zak, scientist, author and neuro-economist, focuses on storytelling and how it can build trust and motivate cooperation. 

When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.” - Paul Zak

Key to almost every compelling story is a character that faces a challenge. To sum up Zak’s research, 

  • when we begin to identify with a character, we produce the “empathy hormone”, oxytocin. 

  • When we hear about conflict and challenge, our brain produces cortisol, focussing our attention. 

As Zak writes in Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, “A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key ‘it’s safe to approach others’ signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions."

But Zak says there’s another element of story that we need to take action. “We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it.”

Want to learn more about this? Check out Zak’s short and insightful video Empathy, Neurochemistry and the Dramatic Arc.

2. Persuading others to take action: Your amygdala and story

Here’s a question for you. Let’s say you have something pretty valuable to sell. One person offers you $1000.00 and another person says they’ll buy it off you for 1250.00. Which person will you sell it to?

C’mon, you say. That’s obvious. But it’s not.

Because we don’t make decisions just with the rational part of our brain -- also known as the cortex, the youngest part of our brain. Decisions that stick are made with logic plus emotion. And emotion starts in the amygdala, one of the oldest parts of the brain.

In fact, contrary to what most of us believe, much of the latest neuroscience research concludes that decision-making starts with the amygdala and then moves to the orbitofrontal cortex. Or to put it simply, 

  • decision-making is emotional first, and then logical.

Are you skeptical? Here’s a story for you.

Decision-making is emotional first, and then logical —even when you are making a big purchase. Illustration: Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay

Decision-making is emotional first, and then logical —even when you are making a big purchase. Illustration: Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay

Three years ago Jack and his wife were poised to buy their very first house. They had their pre-approval in hand, a real estate agent and the goal of finding their dream home ..in a neighbourhood in their where Jack’s wife had deep connections.

One day they walked into that dream home. They were so excited when they left the showing. That is until their real estate agent broke the news to them, “You are never going to have the highest bid.” 

Their agent told them there was a last ditch effort they could make, no guarantees but they could give it a try. I’ll let Jack pick it up from here.

“We’ve talked a lot with our agent about what the area the house is in means to us leading up to offering, and he encouraged us to write a letter to the sellers expressing that. It’s just around the corner where her grandmother lived for 70 years and the home that her mother was raised in, one block over from our closest friends, down the street from where my wife works, and a 10-minute walk from her mother who is now a senior living on her own. Using the story building skills that I learned, we crafted a letter that swayed them to give the house to us over a bid that was slightly higher because they could feel what it would mean to us and our future together.”  

Someone sold their house to a complete stranger because of a significant connection made through a letter. I don’t know anything about the people who sold the house, but I imagine that the home they were selling held many significant memories for them, and it meant something to them to pass it on to someone else who would value it as much as they did. I mean, it meant enough that they were willing to sell them the house even though they didn’t have the highest offer.

By the way, I know Jack because he took a Power of Story workshop of mine. He didn’t just use his story skills to buy a house, he used it to fire up the vision for a capital campaign at the nonprofit he worked at. 

The next time you need to persuade someone to take action with you, to capture their attention and their hearts, light up their brain with story.

Cate Friesen