Next-Level Storytelling

Why emotion is the fast lane to the brain.

By Doug Stevenson

Why do you think Malcolm Gladwell is so successful? All three of his books, “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and most recently “Outliers—The Story of Success,” are best sellers.

The answer lies in the subtitle of his most recent book, “The Story of Success.”

Malcolm is a synthesizer, a pattern recognizer. After he’s done his research and compiled lots of examples to illustrate the points he wants to make, he writes his books by telling stories. He’s a good storyteller.

Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind,” states, “Story represents a pathway to understanding that doesn’t run through the left side of the brain.” It is his belief that people who can recognize patterns and make meaning from seemingly non-related events and information will succeed, while the purely logical left-brain thinker will struggle. In his view, the future belongs to the big-picture thinkers—the storytellers.

That’s good news for professional trainers.

How many times has someone come up to you after a class and said, “I was right there with you at that moment in your story”? They then go on to describe not only what they saw but what they felt and experienced.

My research with hundreds of students and thousands of audience members has taught me that stories are memorable because of the images and emotions contained in the story. The lesson of the story sticks because it’s embedded in an emotionally charged image. The image isn’t a still picture; it’s a motion picture, a movie. While you’re listening to a story, you’re simultaneously watching the story on the movie screen in your mind, in your imagination. Furthermore, a motion picture—a movie—works better than a still picture image.

Remember the Story; Remember the Point

Let’s test my theory. Take a moment now to think about a movie you first saw many years ago. Stop reading for a second and identify that movie.

What movie did you choose? Now, what specifically do you remember when you recall that movie?

If you’re like the majority of my students, the first thing that came to your mind was an image or a scene. If I asked you to describe the scene, you could do it in great detail. You remember the actors, their clothes, the location, the situation, and the emotions. You can see these images as easily now as you did when you were watching the movie.

What you remember next is dialogue. But compared to how vividly you remember the images, you probably don’t remember the exact dialogue. Maybe you remember a line that has become famous by repetition, such as “Make my day” or “Show me the money” or “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Your brain stores pictures first. It then remembers the emotional context, and finally, it remembers language.

In his new book, “Brain Rules,” molecular biologist John Medina explains this phenomenon. “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the Amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post-It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”

Are you guilty of using too many words and not enough imagery and emotion when you’re presenting a story?

John’s research explains why audience members who saw me tell a story in a keynote or training class more than 10 years ago approach me like I’m a long-lost friend and say, “I still remember your airport story.” But it’s what they say next that proves the effectiveness of my Story Theater Method as an essential storytelling approach. With a smile on their face, they say, “I’m still looking for the limo.”

“Look for the Limo” is the branded point of the story. I call it a Phrase That Pays—mental Velcro that makes the point of your story stick. Because they remember the story, they remember the point. When they remember the point, it becomes actionable. What’s the point of developing a presentation filled with great content if no one remembers anything, takes action, or changes his or her behavior?

Your students aren’t looking for great storytellers. They’re looking for practical ideas they can use in their daily lives. They’re looking for results.

Bring the Audience to You

I came to speaking and training after 20 years of acting on stage and screen. While I didn’t accomplish my goal of becoming a movie star, I did become an accomplished professional actor. When you’re in a play, your job is to bring your character to life. The play is your canvas and emotions are your paintbrush and colors. Your environment is a set within which you move around and play out your scenes. It’s a three-dimensional experience.

While the theater audience sits mere feet away from the stage, as far as the actors are concerned, they don’t exist. Actors know that if they do their job properly, the audience will come to them. As a professional speaker, I know this to be true, as well.

Are you living up to the potential of your most powerful stories? Are you narrating your emotions rather than feeling them? Are you truly taking the time to “make motion pictures” by staging your stories in such a way that they become three-dimensional experiences?

The method I created, Story Theater, is a synthesis of storytelling form and structure, subtle acting and comedy skills, and message branding. The structure makes the story easy to follow; the simple acting moments draw the audience into the experience and stimulate emotional responses; and the branded message gives them a call to action they can apply in their lives.

Marco Iacoboni is a neuroscientist, someone who studies the workings of the brain. In his book, “Mirroring People,” he asks, “Why do we give ourselves over to emotion during the carefully crafted, heartrending scenes in certain movies? Because mirror neurons in our brains recreate for us the distress we see on the screen. We have empathy for the fictional characters—we know how they’re feeling—because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves.”

Aha! Eureka! At last I’ve found a scientific explanation to explain what I’ve been teaching my students for the last 15 years—mirror neurons. Your audience members don’t just listen to your stories; they see images and feel emotions. They actually experience the story as if it’s happening to them—IF the story and the storyteller are good enough.

“One important area of research,” says John Medina, “is the effect of emotion on learning. Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events. They persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral events.”

Now think back to the movie you identified. Why did you choose that movie out of the hundreds you’ve seen in your life? Is it because that movie was emotionally arousing and, therefore, more meaningful and memorable than most of the others? Did it make you laugh or cry or both?

By its very nature, story is an emotionally arousing event that engages listeners on many levels and holds their attention. With the advent of the Blackberry and iPhone, competing for your audience members’ mind share is the first challenge you face when you begin your presentation. Good storytelling solves that problem. Then, using storytelling craft, we can attach meaning to the story with a well-chosen point.

5 Keys to Compelling Stories

Now is the time for professional trainers to take their storytelling skills to the next level. Three words describe what the next level requires: precision, emotion, and clarity. Simply “getting to the point” misses the point of what a good story is all about: imagery, emotion, and relationships.

Here are five quick tips to make your stories more compelling:

  1. Script and memorize you best stories. Stop rehearsing in front of your students.
  2. Don’t just narrate emotions; portray them in silence. Don’t pause; think and feel!
  3. Think of your stories as mini-plays. Practice the movement and staging.
  4. Create IN moments, present-tense re-enactments of key emotional moments.
  5. Use humor to set up your most powerful emotional moments. Then go deep.

Finally, stop playing it safe with your stories. Many of your best stories are powerful because of the pain or difficulty involved in dealing with a crisis or obstacle. If you think about your favorite movies, they’re your favorites because they made you feel something. The actors went deep into the emotion of the moment. Because they went there, you went there (mirror neurons.)

The best storytellers take it to another level. They are more precise with the sequence of the story, more eloquent with the language of the story and more deliberate about the point of the story. They don’t get lucky—they get their stories right every time. Isn’t it time to take your stories to the next level?

Doug Stevenson’s keynote/training, The Power to Persuade—The Magic of Story, helps leaders, trainers, and salespeople to discover the transformation power of storytelling to change hearts and minds. Learn more at or call 719.573.6195.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.