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The Science of Storytelling – Part 1

Since the very first days when man could barely talk, stories have always been told, they grab us and take us in to another fantastical world. They also allow us to live sort of vicariously, that is by imagining the storytellers experience.

Not everybody has the skill to narrate stories and keep their audiences captivated the whole way through. Storytelling is an art and is also a key leadership skill, but how does one learn to be a great orator?

Firstly, you need to understand that storytelling requires science to help it along, it sparks certain reactions in the listener’s brain that captivates them and wants them to continue listening to the story. As one great storyteller remarked, storytelling is not magic, it is in fact neurology.

The Data Processing Areas of the Brain

There are two main parts of the brain that process data and they are called the Wernicke’s area and the Broca’s area. And researchers at Princeton University conducted a study and found that when a person listens to a well narrated story, the parts of the brain that respond are the ones that would be if you were actually living the story.

So, if the story is about drinking coffee your olfactory senses come into play. Perhaps the storyteller relays about grabbing a ball, if so your motor cortex responds in a way that is specific to hand movements. And to impress you even further these sorts of reactions and effects also happen to the storyteller. Thus, if the performance is live both the narrator and the listener brain’s start to sync with each other. This is the perceived magic you can sense in a room when a master storyteller is at work, the audience is almost spellbound.

Mirror Neurons

Scientists trying to describe this spellbound state have put through a theory that it is mirror neurons that are at play. Mirror neurons respond when we see somebody doing an action and when you actually do an action. So sometimes you have an urge to yawn when you see somebody else yawning. This is why the audience feels empathy towards the storyteller. When a storyteller is in full flow our brains respond as though we were inside the story, and there forms a powerful bond between the audience and the storyteller.

Describe, Don’t Commentate

So now we have a glimpse of how science plays a part in storytelling how can a storyteller exploit this? The key is to make the audience believe that they are inside the story, so their brain reacts accordingly. And to achieve this the storyteller has to describe what happened to them as if it was happening, there is no need for extra context or opinions, just graphic descriptions of the situation.

A good way to picture this is if you were trying to make a film inside your audience’s head. Tell your story graphically and with plenty of action scenes. Break down the detail: What is happening? What did somebody say? Who was there? By being granular with your storytelling the audience can live the story in their heads.

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