Harvard professor Amy Cuddy thought she had made a mistake.
In 2012 Cuddy, stepped on a TED stage to deliver a presentation on how body posture influences behavior. In addition to the data, she shared a deeply personal story of how she fought her own battle with “imposter syndrome” early in her career.
The story was unplanned and unscripted. Cuddy’s “mistake” turned out be lucrative, as the video went viral and sparked a New York Times bestseller, “Presence.”
Sharing a personal story changed Cuddy’s life, and it could change yours, too.
“What sets TED talks apart is that the big ideas are wrapped in personal stories,” Charlie Rose once said on the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Rose nailed it.
When a speaker is invited to take the TED stage, they’re sent a stone tablet engraved with TED Commandments. Among the most important commandment of all: “Thou shalt tell a story.”
In my analysis of 500 TED talks (150 hours) and interviews with some of the most popular TED speakers, a clear pattern emerges. TED talks that go viral are made up of:
65% personal stories
25% data, facts and figures
10% resume builders to reinforce speaker credibility
Duke professor Dan Ariely’s TED talks have been viewed 12 million times. Ariely often shares the tragic story of when he was involved in an accident as a teenager — an accident that left him burned over 70% of his body.
In the hospital, it took about an hour for the nurses to rip off his bandages to re-apply new ones. “As you can imagine, I hated that moment of ripping with incredible intensity. And I would try to reason with them and say, ‘Why don’t we try something else? Why don’t we take it a little longer — maybe two hours instead of an hour — and have less of this intensity?'”
The nurses assumed they knew better than the patient. They didn’t. The experience led Ariely to study behavioral economics and to write the bestselling book “Predictably Irrational.” Today, Ariely’s compelling personal story has made him a sought-after advisor to governments and organizations around the world.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is learning about the power of personal story. Sandberg’s TEDx talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” has been viewed more than 6 million times and launched the Lean In movement. Personal stories make up 72% of Sandberg’s now-famous presentation. Remarkably, Sandberg wasn’t going to tell a story at all.
While preparing for the presentation on women in the workplace, Sandberg did what came naturally. The former management consultant amassed mountains of statistics on things like how many heads of state are women and how many women make up the C-suite in corporate America.
Just before she took the stage, Sandberg found herself unable to focus on the speech. She confided to her friend Pat that she was troubled about something that had happened before boarding the plane for the conference. Her 3-year-old daughter, upset at the fact that her mother was leaving, clung to her leg, pleading, “Mommy, don’t go.”
Pat suggested to Sandberg that she should share the story with the mostly female audience. “Are you kidding?” she responded. “I’m going to get on a stage and admit my daughter was clinging to my leg?” Sandberg eventually took her friend’s advice and opened the presentation with a deeply personal story revealing the challenges she faced as a working mother.
If it hadn’t been for a personal story, we probably never would have heard of “Lean In.”
By accident, Sandberg had discovered what neuroscientists are discovering in the lab: Stories alter brain chemistry that in turn triggers empathy in your audience. When the brain hears a compelling personal story, it triggers a rush of chemicals including dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin, the ‘love molecule’ that makes us feel empathy for another person.
At Princeton University, researcher Uri Hasson has discovered that when one person tells another person a story, the same regions of their brains light up on fMRI scans. He calls it “neural coupling,” which simply means the two people are having a brain sync.
No other tool of persuasion has the same effect as a personal story. If you want to “connect” with another person, tell more stories. It’s a commandment worth following in every pitch and presentation.