Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Economist Paul Zak On "How Stories Change the Brain"

Click here to read it. When Zak refers to "recent analysis" that identifies the "hero's journey" he refers to a book titled Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten) by Pen Densham. That book has a few references to Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, one of the inspirations for Star Wars). Zak mentions "there is a universal story structure." This sounds like Campbell, too.

I also like how Zak ties the way the brain is affected by stories to evolution. He mentions how some stories are better at eliciting a desire to donate money to charities. Economics also comes in with "attention is a scarce resource." If you are telling a story, you better make it emotional or else people will not want to focus on it because that is costly. As economist Robert Frank has said, emotions are costly to fake so they make a more believable kind of information.

"A recent analysis identifies this “hero’s journey” story as the foundation for more than half of the movies that come out of Hollywood, and countless books of fiction and nonfiction. And, if you take a look, this structure is in the majority of the most-watched TED talks.

Why are we so attracted to stories? My lab has spent the last several years seeking to understand why stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better. Here’s what we’ve learned."

"The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts."

"We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.

Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource. Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat.

Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders.

In fact, using one’s attentional spotlight is metabolically costly so we use it sparingly. This is why you can drive on the freeway and talk on the phone or listen to music at the same time. Your attentional spotlight is dim so you can absorb multiple informational streams. You can do this until the car in front of you jams on its brakes and your attentional spotlight illuminates fully to help you avoid an accident.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story"

"In the brain, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high.

Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.

Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.

Stories bring brains together

Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to rapidly forecast if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe.

Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form relationships with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does. The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed. 

We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule,” and others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help."

"But it turns out that not all stories keep our attention and not all stories transport us into the characters’ worlds."

"This evidence supports the view of some narrative theorists that there is a universal story structure. These scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself."

"The form in which a narrative is told also seems to matter. The narrative theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” and we’ve found this is true neurologically."

Monday, January 13, 2014

Growing Your Business Through Storytelling

Robert Lerose of Bank of America interviewed Jonathan Gottschall. Click here to go to it. The only thing I would add is that if stories convey emotions, as Gottschall says, they are economic because emotions are costly to fake. That is one of the big things I try to get across with this blog. See the link on the right for more info  What This Blog Is About.

Here is the interview:
"Growing Your Business Through Storytelling: Q&A with author Jonathan Gottschall
 Posted by Touchpoint in General Business on Dec 6, 2013 8:08:23 AM  

Everybody loves a good story. Stories can fill us with joy, bring us to tears, or stimulate any emotion in between. They have a magical ability to grab and hold our attention in a way that almost no other form of communication can, making them ideal for marketers who want to reach distracted consumers and grow their sales. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, about the irresistible pull of storytelling and the role it plays in building brands.

RL: There seems to be a movement in business to have a good brand story to tell—something that resonates on an emotional level with consumers. What are some ways that a business can harness the power of stories to grow their brand or sell their products?

JG: Story is considered a potent tool in business communication because it's special in the way that it draws human attention. If you just tell me your business makes really great paper clips, I don't care. It's just data. But if you wrap your product up in a compelling narrative—an emotionally engrossing story—then you have me. A story not only gives me information that you guys make good paper clips, but it helps me feel an emotional connection with you and what you're doing that's really quite powerful. Coca-Cola is a perfect example. What sets them apart isn't the beverage so much, but the kinds of stories they tell about their products and the kind of bond they've been able to forge with consumers over roughly a century. 

RL: You've said that television commercials are half-minute short stories. What did you mean by that?

JG: A commercial rarely just says that a laundry detergent works well; it shows that it does through a story about an overworked mom, rascally kids, and a laundry room triumph. Jewelry stores get men to buy sparkly little rocks by screening stories in which besotted suitors pinpoint the exact price of a woman's love: two months' salary. Some ad campaigns are designed around recurring characters in multipart stories. Story touches nearly every aspect of our lives.

RL: Stories rely heavily on conflict to involve the reader. Even case studies in business follow a typical problem/solution structure. Why?

JG: Stories are almost always about people with problems. The people want something badly, but big obstacles [stand in the way]. It is a basic storytelling technique to establish and forge this really strong, personal connection between consumers and the brand. Stories tend to fixate on trouble. Without a knotty problem, you don't have a story.

RL: Stories can help brands distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. Do you have an example of a brand story that rises above the fray?

JG: This Chipotle ad is a very good example. You can tell people all day about the power of story. You can describe the psychological studies that prove it. But if you have them watch this story, they can see for themselves—feel for themselves—why story is such an incredibly powerful tool for riveting attention, rousing emotion, changing behavior, and driving home a business's message.

RL: You say that story binds society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. How can a business leverage this?

JG: Tell stories that tap into a common morality. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values.

RL: How can small business owners become better storytellers?

JG: I'd tell them to steer clear of business books and look up creative writing textbooks instead, like The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. There are a few basic principles to learn. One is to have a problem, to have trouble in your story. If there's no problem, people just aren't interested. The second thing I would stress is that by nature, story is a vehicle for a message. So it's not weird or artificial to graft your business message onto your business story. Stories are so much better at carrying a message and convincing people of things than just a straight informational presentation. There's a lot of research that shows how much better people remember things in story form—how much more convinced they are when people are given information in a story—rather than from a list of bullet points.

RL: Final thoughts?

JG: I was in Warsaw at this little place called the Radio Café that's popular with Western travelers. On the back page of the menu, there's a whole story in English about the Radio Café and the building it's in and the role it played transmitting radio signals during the Polish resistance of World War II. And suddenly—instead of just having Polish dumplings at this restaurant, I felt deeply, emotionally connected to this place. I had read up on Warsaw and I had all these associations in my mind. Their little story connected me to that big story and made me feel a little more connected to that place in a way that would have brought me back, in a way that would have me recommend it to my friends. Just by intuition, they knew it was important to tell their story."