Although I've studied persuasion for 25 years, the last ten years has seen an explosion in research, thanks to advanced brain scanning techniques. We've discovered more in the last decade about influence than we've ever known. We know what works and what doesn't. 

What works? Telling a story.

In her new book, The Influential Mind, cognitive neuroscience professor Tali Sharot says the amygdala is the ticket to persuasion. It's the brain region that sends an 'alert signal' to the rest of your brain when it's activated.

Emotion activates the amygdala. Emotion intensifies the memory of an event. Most importantly for persuasion research, emotion is contagious. In a movie theater we laugh, we cry, we scream in horror--at the same time. We're in sync. 

Sharot says the latest research into 'brain coupling' helps to explain "a feeling that you click with another person." Much of the research is taking place at Princeton University in the lab of Uri Hasson, with whom I've also spoken. It's remarkable research, and Sharot does a good job of helping her readers understand its implications.

Here's how it works.

Emotions sync your brain with others

Researchers use fMRI machines (functional MRI) to scan the brain of a speaker telling a personal story about herself, and the brains of her listeners. Blood flow shows which areas of the brains are active.

Researchers are finding that stories which are rich with emotion--fear, anxiety, excitement--trigger a rush of neurochemicals in both the brains of the speaker and listener. It gets more interesting. Stories seem to be the only type of verbal communication that creates "coupling," where both the speakers' brains and the listeners' brains are in sync.

According to Sharot, "Emotion is by no means necessary for synchronization, but it heightens it." Telling an emotional story is the single best tool we have to make an instant and powerful connection with another person. 

"If I feel happy and you feel sad, we are unlikely to interpret the same story in the same way," writes Sharot. "But if I can first help you feel as happy as I do, you will be more likely to construe my message the way I do. The good news about this tactic is that emotion is extremely contagious."

Emotions are contagious, says Sharot, because our brains are designed to process emotion quickly. You can imagine how this came in handy for our primitive ancestors.

"For example, if I detect fear, I am more likely to feel fear, too, and as a result scan my surroundings for danger," Sharot writes. "This may save me, because if you are afraid there is a good chance that there's something nearby I should be afraid of, too."

A real-life example

A few years ago I had a conversation with a TED speaker whose video had gone viral. Human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson began his talk with a touching and humorous story about his grandmother, who he credits with giving him a sense of identity and self-esteem. 

"Why do you tell stories about your grandmother?" I asked.

"Because everybody has a grandmother," Stevenson replied. "It helps to build an instant connection."

Stevenson 'clicked' with his audience because he told a story. If you're not sharing stories in your business presentations or pitches, you're missing the single best communication tool you have in the persuasion toolbox. 

Published on: Oct 25, 2017