Why Storytelling Works

By Nathan Young - Storytelling Consultant

My first “official” exposure to storytelling was through storytelling shows at bars. I listened to stories, told my own stories and worked with other storytellers to help improve their craft. At these different events, people told funny stories, poignant stories and even very deeply personal stories. After every show, people from the audience would approach the different storytellers to tell them how much their story affected them. I saw with my own eyes how powerful storytelling was as a means of expression, but I was curious to know more about why storytelling worked the way it did.  

I put “official” in quotation marks above because, while it might have been the first time I was exposed to direct storytelling as a form of entertainment and expression, storytelling is all around us whether we realize it or not. It’s in our favorite books and TV shows, it’s integral to every major religion, and most of us listen to and tell stories daily whether we mean to or not.

The truth is that humans are hardwired for stories. It’s literally part of our brain chemistry. We evolved with stories as a species and storytelling is integral in how we relate to and make connections with one another.

The connection between storytelling and our brain chemistry has been studied by neuroscientist Paul Zak. He took blood samples from people as they listened to engaging stories. He found that when the listener empathized with the main character their bodies released cortisol during the rising action of a story, oxytocin at the climax of the story and dopamine at the end of story (assuming there was a happy ending!).

What does this information mean for you and me? It means we have the power to actually affect each other’s brain chemistry through storytelling! (Hopefully in a positive way.)

Think of times that you’ve been moved by a powerful story, whether it's been from a book, movie or a talk you heard. You can probably remember feeling your emotions being pulled by the rising action, climax and release of the story. This is your brain chemistry at work.

Keep this in mind for the next big talk you have to give, letter you write to donors or even in your conversations. Can you integrate storytelling into your communications to increase the impact of the message you have to share?

If you'd like a little help  crafting your own stories, I've got the perfect tool for you. Sign up below and I’ll send you my Story Planner Worksheet. It will walk you through the steps of planning the stories you want to share.