Whether you're trying to maintain an audience's attention, sell your product, interest an interviewer, or pitch a journalist, great storytelling is key. The ability to spin a yarn that captivates others can have magical effects for your company and career. No wonder there's no shortage of advice out there on how to do just that. But even if you completely master story structure and delivery one essential question remains: why?

It's clear that human beings are wired to love a great story, but what exactly makes a well-told tale so irresistible? Why are tense stories of human struggle and triumph the most appealing to people of diverse backgrounds? Why do we find sensory details like the smell of a location or a character's exact carriage and demeanor so compelling?

Neuroscience is starting to unravel the answer to these intriguing questions, peering into the human brain to figure out just what's going on in our heads when we sit riveted in a darkened movie theater or hang onto every word of an expert speaker? The key, apparently, seems to be our capacity for empathy.


As behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk explained on her blog recently (via a great personal story, of course), by putting us in their protagonists' shoes, stories manage to engage more of the brain than straight recitations of facts or dry arguments, leading to more arousal and interest.

"Let's say you are listening to me give a presentation on the global economy. I'm not telling a story, but giving you facts and figures. If we had you hooked up to an fMRI machine we would see that your auditory cortex is active, as you're listening, as well as Wernicke's area of the brain where words are processed," she explains. Now imagine the same information cloaked in the trappings of a great story, "a story about a family in South America that is being affected by changes in the global economy--a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care."

"What's going on in your brain now?" she asks. "The Wernicke's area would be active again, as well as the same auditory or visual cortices, but now there's more activity. We would see many other parts of your brain light up. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the pine forest high in the Andes where this family lives, the olfactory areas of your brain would be active too, as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road."

As Weinschenk witnessed herself when addressing a reluctant group of corporate trainees, this extra brain arousal translates to greater interest and engagement from the audience.

... and empathy

But stories aren't just an effective tool because they're inherently interesting, according to another recent post by Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, on the HBR Blog Network. Stories also have a remarkable ability to spur empathy and cooperation (which is what you want if you're pitching your business, of course). The key to this profound benefit of stories? A hormone called oxytocin.

"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," Zak explains in the post. "Recently my lab wondered if we could 'hack' the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others."

Good stories, in other words, nudge people to pay attention, empathize, and cooperate, and that's very relevant in business. "Character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points," Zak says, advising every speaker to start off with a "compelling, human-scale story." Illustrate your customers' pain for your people with a well-told story and you're likely to boost their empathy--and motivation.

A bit of biology, it turns out, can be a pretty handy thing for a busy business owner to know.