Why speakers need to know about brain chemistry

story Dec 15, 2021

As speakers and presenters, we need to embrace storytelling if we want to persuade others to march to our drum, or buy our product, or support our cause.

If you want to win an audience, tell them a story. In fact, tell them lots of stories. You will raise the engagement level of your audience, and you will increase the chances your audience will understand, remember and act on your message.

You see, stories are like duct tape, allowing our messages to stick in the minds of audiences. Stories achieve their stickiness by actually tweaking the chemicals in our brain. 

That’s right… story is a drug. Scientist and author Professor Paul Zak (pictured) has been researching how stories work their magic… and more importantly, what speakers and presenters need to learn from his research.

But first, the chemistry. At the heart of Dr Zak’s research is a neurochemical called oxytocin – otherwise know as the love drug. We produce oxytocin when we are hugged, or shown a kindness, or feel valued. It engages our sense of empathy and encourages us to show kindness or cooperation in return.

Professor Zak found that a character-driven story is as good as a hug for causing oxytocin synthesis. 

The more the story resonates with an audience, the more oxytocin is released. And the amount of oxytocin released by the brain is a predictor of how much people are willing to respond.

So, as speakers and presenters, we need to embrace storytelling if we want to persuade others to march to our drum, or buy our product, or support our cause.

Story is a motivator. Story makes dry facts memorable. But it has to be the right story. And it has to be told well. In order to motivate action, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain. 

A good story does that by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension it is likely the audience will come to share the emotions of the characters in it. 

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 weeks later.

“In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits,” says Professor Zak, writing in the Harvard Business Review.

His simple advice: begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story.