Storytelling in business presentations is more likely to move audiences to action.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience, brain scans, and data-driven studies, we’ve learned more about persuasion in the past decade than we had ever known previously. We know what works and why it works, and we can prove it scientifically.
The data firm Quantified Communications has added to the growing body of evidence that storytelling plays a critical role in effective business presentations. Quantified Communications maintains a large database of written and spoken communication from Fortune 500 executives, TED speakers, political leaders, business professors, entrepreneurs, and others. The company has built computer algorithms that analyze content on a variety of metrics intended to measure the effectiveness of communication. Recently, the company compiled a list of intriguing findings, such as: The average audience has an attention span of five minutes and you have 15 seconds to make a good first impression.
I’m a storytelling expert, so one data point in particular caught my attention. From a random sample of 700 audio and video recordings, Quantified researchers reached the following conclusion: Messages that included well-crafted stories were 35 percent more persuasive than the average communication in the QC database. Story-based messages were also 21 percent more memorable.
According to the research, presentations that scored high for storytelling were more likely to drive an audience to change its beliefs or actions. “Storytelling language gives a speech the qualitative elements that help audiences engage with the speaker and recall the key points,” says Sarah Weber, marketing manager for Quantified Communications.
The research finds that the best stories follow a classic narrative arc: Establish a setting, introduce tension through conflict, and then establish a new normal for the characters via the resolution.
Our Brains Are Wired for Stories
About 1,700 miles northeast of Quantified Communications’ Austin headquarters, another researcher has been adding to the evidence of storytelling. Princeton University researcher Uri Hasson told me that our brains are wired for story–literally.
Hasson and his colleagues recorded the brain activity of speakers telling stories. They used fMRI machines to measure blood flow to regions of the brain. Next, they measured the brain activity of the people listening to the stories. The researchers found that the brains of a speaker and his or her listeners “exhibited joint, temporally coupled, response patterns.” Simply put, the listeners’ brains mirrored the speaker’s brain–only when the speaker was telling the listeners a story. The speaker and the listeners were in sync, and story was the glue that brought them together.
The Winning Formula Behind TED’s Most Popular Talks
My own research has shown that some of the most popular TED Talks are 65 percent narrative–personal anecdotes, case studies, or brand success stories. Famous TED Talks from Ken Robinson, Sheryl Sandberg, and Amy Cuddy are largely made up of personal stories that reinforce the presentations’ themes. Human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson delivered an 18-minute TED Talk that contained three personal stories. Those in the audience were so inspired, they spontaneously donated $1 million to Stevenson’s nonprofit the Equal Justice Initiative.
Storytelling works. It’s part of our DNA. It’s persuasive because thousands of years of experience tells us so. Now science is providing the hard evidence to support this soft skill. As an entrepreneur or a business professional, if you’re not sharing stories, you might be missing out on proven results.