One afternoon two years ago I was at a leadership institute I had helped organise for university IT leaders. It was a week-long intensive program and this was day three, after lunch. Willie Pritchard was at the front of the room, leading a 90-minute session on Emotional Intelligence.  Willie is an American who’s spent a lot of time in Palo Alto. He has floppy white hair and a beard. He was wearing his signature uniform: a loud Hawaiian shirt and chinos.  

Willie is an interesting guy to listen to, but he was fighting a losing battle that afternoon. There wasn’t any natural light in the room, the lights were a little dim so the slides would be easy to read, everyone had been there for three days listening to presentations, and it was after lunch. One of those high-carb lunches they feed you at conferences so you can’t stay awake in the afternoon. Most of the attendees were not really listening. Some heads were drooping. People were checking their email, or Facebook.

And then Willie did something amazing. He said, “Now I’m going to tell you a story.” 

The instant he said those words, there was a dramatic change in the room. It was like he had broken a spell. Everyone, everyone, looked up, opened their posture, edged their chairs closer, leaned in, and gave him their full attention. 

What caused this to happen?

The simple answer is that our brains like stories. They evolved that way.  When you start to hear a story, your brain tells you that something interesting and useful—possibly life-saving—is coming your way, and you’d better pay attention. Thousands of years ago, your ancestors told stories to communicate how they hunted the bison successfully and how they prepared those plants into a tasty meal when doing it the wrong way would kill you. The people who learned from the stories survived.  And as an immediate reward for listening, your limbic system releases pleasure-giving dopamine and oxytocin, causing you to relax and enjoy the experience. 

Being the audience for a story may seem like a passive role, but it isn't. You know intuitively that when you read a page-turning novel or watch a good movie, you become drawn into that world. A number of studies have shown that this is literally what happens. Your brain is simulating the experience of the story and mirroring the brain activity of the storyteller. 

For example, Princeton University neuroscientists Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson found when they compared the brain scan of a person telling a 15-minute, unrehearsed, real-life story with the brain scans of people listening to a recording of it, that the listener’s brain responses mirrored the speaker’s with a short time delay. They also found that an additional area of the listener’s brain lit up: the area that anticipates what’s going to happen next. In other words, the speaker’s words shape how the listener’s brain responds. 

When you tell a story, it is the most direct way to transmit your experience to the listener’s experience. It’s like a mind-meld: a brain-to-brain connection. Or like a flight simulator. If you think your audience would adopt your idea if only they had seen what you have seen, then the best way to make sure that happens is help them see it by telling your story. 

My first year in Toastmasters, I worked through the ten speech projects in the initial manual. One of the projects is about inspiring the audience. I had just read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I was inspired by it to change the way I look at the food I eat, switching to more locally-grown grown produce. I wanted to pass this excitement on to others, and in my speech for my Toastmasters club I explained all of the reasons it was so important. All of the reasons but none of Michael Pollan’s delightful story about his journey exploring the origins of our food. My speech fell completely flat. I’m not sure the group even understood what I was trying to say. I was greeted with a room full of polite but puzzled faces, and I concluded I just didn't have it in me to be an inspiring speaker. 

A while later, I gave another speech to the club, which I thought would be just a bit of fun and wasn’t intended to have an impact. I titled it Secrets of Speed Dating Success and told the true story of how I met a wonderful man who is now my partner at a speed dating event. This time, I had the full, absorbed attention of everyone in the room and I had to stay back long afterwards because they all wanted to talk with me about it. One wide-eyed woman said, “I’ve tried speed dating and thought it was a waste of time, but I see now I’ve been going about it all the wrong way. I’m going to try it again.” The influence I had that evening was a complete surprise to me and was almost frightening. I realised that I could in fact be an inspiring speaker; it was just the dry, analytical way I had presented the earlier material that had prevented my message from getting through.

In Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck, Chip and Dan Heath conclude that stories almost single-handedly overcome typical communication problems. Stories provide both simulation—knowledge about how to act—and inspiration—motivation to act. “Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate and to inspire. And most of the time we don’t even have to use much creativity to harness this power—we just need to be ready to spot the good ones that life generates every day."