Brink’s Storytelling Manager, Lil Patuck, breaks down why stories are such a vital ingredient in creating lasting change.
Stories help us make sense of the world. Humans have told stories long before writing them down. Whether orally, visually or written, they have entertained and educated us for thousands of years.
Everything that happens in our lives gets packaged up and passed on. News broadcasted to millions can reinforce long-held narratives, delivered with embellishments in order to monopolise attention and influence others. Conversations over dinner contribute to each person's identity, gradually shaped by the stories accumulated and shared over time.
The stories we tell, share and listen to inspire the twists and turns of the world, both good and bad, and then more stories describe those events far and wide. This cycle continues over and over. Mediums have changed and audiences have grown, but after thousands of years, storytelling is still the intrinsically human and powerful tool it has always been.
Stories activate parts of the brain that facts don’t, and this makes them more effective at changing beliefs and behaviours
We know that most things sound more interesting when you tell a story about real people overcoming obstacles in the real world. This is because a story triggers reactions in the brain that we can’t control, releasing three, powerful chemicals:
- Oxytocin is well-known as the love drug: a chemical which induces empathy and makes us care and feel connected to others, whether we like it or not.
- Dopamine is the feel-good hormone that’s central to our brain’s reward center. It’s the addictive chemical that businesses have used to their advantage for decades, and a key ingredient for habit-forming and encouraging new behaviours. When dopamine is released a person is more likely to remember information
- Cortisol is the stress hormone. It’s released when we come up against challenges and obstacles in stories. Not only does cortisol keep us aware and attentive, but it’s also a crucial chemical that helps us form memories.
Our brains light up as we are served cocktails of these chemicals every day, engaging us to click, buy, share, learn and gasp, and we are defenceless to it.
In a 2009 experiment by Professor Paul Zak, it was discovered that the amount of oxytocin and cortisol released by the brain could directly predict how much people would be willing to take action or help others; for example, by donating money to a charity associated with the narrative in the story. This chemical combination acts like a drug, causing what some call “transportation”: literally transporting us into the story we’re experiencing.
Even data, which has become the driver and great influencer of our generation, cannot compete with storytelling. It's not the numbers that we remember and which create meaning, it's the story we're told about those numbers.
In essence, the better the story, the more chemicals are released, the stronger the reaction is likely to be: More information remembered, better understanding of the problem, engaged participants, action taken.
The best part of stories is that they aren’t restricted by what’s come before
At Brink we know that storytelling is a powerful tool for Behavioural Innovation. With the capacity to engage, increase empathy and awareness, the right story can help change how an organisation or group thinks and acts, inspiring and shifting mindsets from tired lizard brain to curious and brave, ready to innovate like people matter.
Humans have a bias to follow what’s been done before. We look for safety in replication, using heuristics on a constant basis. Heuristics are the mental shortcuts our brains take to conserve energy and be efficient machines, like a rule of thumb. These shortcuts can serve us well, simplifying problems and saving time, but they also involve ignoring the information which makes the problem more complex, either consciously or unconsciously.
We also tend to have a sunk-fallacy bias towards work we’ve spent time on, wanting the time spent on tried and tested solutions to be maximised. But if society continues to do as it has before, then nothing changes.
If one copies another then the end result will be much the same. We already know that old plans like “give every child a laptop and they will learn” and, “don’t teach teenagers about sex so they won’t have it” will set us on a trajectory based on what’s come before: a future that is probable.
But Brink has worked with 279 ventures around the world who are all focussed on a different kind of trajectory. They are each setting out to do something that doesn’t yet exist, expanding on the historical data we’ve gathered to imagine a future that is possible.
Storytelling allows us to break free of the rules of thumb, consciously tackle our biases and move beyond the “probable future” our brains nudge us towards: business as usual. Our brains want to keep us safe, efficient and steady, but we know that only new ideas will fix old problems. Not only can the right stories untether us from the past, but told well they can cut through the noise and bring others on the journey.
Brink’s Storytelling practice exists to explore how stories can be used ethically to make positive dents in the world, empowering the people with the most at stake in the change
Some of the best projects I’ve ever worked on would be nothing without the brilliant storytelling minds bringing them to life. Stories help bring together purpose and proposition, mission and impact, insight and opportunity - in creative, memorable ways.
But as with all powerful tools (and drugs), storytelling must be used with care. When narratives are incomplete or misleading, they can keep us stuck instead of providing clarity and inspiration, and our brains can overlook important information in the hunt for that cocktail of chemicals..
“We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible. With a half-story in our minds, we earn a dopamine “reward” every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”
Robert Burton’s explanation regarding science can be applied to other “half-stories”: products, ideas, policies, stereotypes. Our susceptibility is worrying. Inevitably someone, somewhere will always decide to exploit our natural reactions for personal gain. Some use stories to sell products and hook users into platforms. Others use it to spread fear, gain control and spark devastating consequences across the world.
It brings back the point that the smart path is to design, innovate and communicate with human behaviour in mind. We know that when we listen in the right ways, we can uncover stories which challenge our perspectives. If we amplify enough of those stories, they can filter down to shift big, long-held, unhelpful narratives. When we hold space for decision makers to listen, stories can spark catalytic conversations and ideas. And that's where change starts.