In a fascinating research study looking at how the human brain responds to language and communication, researchers monitored participant brain activity after reading different kinds of texts.
They found something illuminating. Stories activate parts of the brain that might otherwise remain unaffected. Specifically, reading about a sensory experience, like reading the phrases “leathery hands” and “a velvet voice,” evoked a response from the sensory cortex that neither “strong hands” nor “pleasing voice” did. Similarly, reading about movement and activity can activate the motor cortex.
That by itself may not convince you that stories are so powerful. But consider a classic 1994 study. There, college students were shown a film that depicted nothing more than two triangles and a circle moving across a surface. That’s it. Yet most of the students tried to come up with elaborate explanations of what was going on, imbuing the geometric figures with meaning, agency, backstories, and even emotionality that simply didn’t exist.
When you combine findings from studies like these, you end up with a picture of a brain that automatically tries to assemble virtually any information into a narrative and responds much more enthusiastically when the narrative incorporates rich details and action-driven plotlines.
That has huge implications for business, technical, and academic writers, not just novelists. It means that communicating information through stories will more effectively engage the whole brain, which can help form stronger connections with the written material (and the author). Stories help readers better understand the information and create an emotional connection with the material.
But if you want your stories to have maximum impact, follow a few best practices
- Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm the reader with details and use simple language, writing, and ideas.
- Avoid clichés. A good tip in general, clichés can be particularly damaging to storytelling because our brains often outright ignore overused phrases and words.
- Keep the focus on a struggle, conflict, or overcoming a challenge. This advice comes from The Harvard Business Review, in which the author writes, “A story without a challenge simply isn’t very interesting.”
- Incorporate visualizations. These can be as simple as tables, charts, and graphics, but they will help bring the concepts being discussed to life for the reader in visually pleasing, easy-to-consume ways.
- If you’re trying to persuade readers, avoid a fixed ending. “A data story starts out like any other story, with a beginning and a middle,” says James Richardson, Senior Director Analyst at Gartner, about communicating business data in the form of stories. “The end should never be a fixed event, but rather a set of options or questions to trigger an action from the audience. Never forget that the goal of data storytelling is to encourage and energize critical thinking for business decisions.”