Your brain wants a story. Or gossip. In fact over the last 27,000 years it has been desperate to hear stories and gossip. Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling and how to make use of it. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. Jeremy Hsu found: Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.
Your brain lights up and becomes more active when we hear stories, gossip and metaphors. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. You know the feeling, when a good friend tells you a story and then two weeks later, you mention the same story to him, as if it was your idea? This is totally normal and at the same time, one of the most powerful ways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. Brain scans (fMRI) are revealing what happens inside our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange. Stories and metaphors stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Researchers have long known that the so-called classical language regions, like Broca’s area andWernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets and understands written words. What scientists have come to realise in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like lavender,cinnamon and soap, for example, elicit a response not only from the language processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.
An important goal in training and presenting is to engage your audience both at a logical, conscious level and at an emotional, subconscious level. Since the subconscious is really the final decision maker, you want to use techniques that help you communicate with that part of the brain, rather than just addressing the rational, verbal part.
An old Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said, “A battle is raging inside me…it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The old man looked at the children with a firm stare. “This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee replied: “The one you feed.”
For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us that they’ve experienced. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?
A story can put your whole brain to work.
1. A story promotes open not close thinking
2. Stories make complex stuff simple.
3. Stories are familiar.
Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That is why metaphors work so well with us. Whilst we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else. In a really powerful experiment, John Bargh at Yale found that,
Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.
We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically. Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship of something we’ve previously experienced. This means, that the frontal cortex – the area of your brain responsible to experience emotions, can’t be activated with certain powerful phrases. It’s something that might be worth remembering when crafting your next story. Storytelling is one of the most powerful techniques we have as humans to communicate and motivate.
Do you remember this story?
The donkey and the farmer.
One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey.
He invited all his neighbours to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement he quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer's neighbours continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt.
The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a stepping stone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.
Take a moment and then read this:
A Carrot, an Egg, and a Cup of Coffee
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed that as one problem was solved, a new one arose.
Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.
In about twenty minutes, she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.
Turning to her daughter, she asked, "Tell me, what do you see?" "Carrots, eggs, and coffee," the daughter replied.
Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma. The daughter then asked, "What does it mean, mother?"
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity—boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.
"Which are you?" she asked her daughter. "When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?"
Think of this: Which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength? Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and hardened heart?
Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavour. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you. When the hour is darkest and trials are their greatest, do you elevate yourself to another level? How do you handle adversity? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?
May you have enough happiness to make you sweet, enough trials to make you strong, enough sorrow to keep you human, and enough hope to make you happy. The happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything—they just make the most of everything that comes along their way. The brightest future will always be based on a forgotten past; you can't go forward in life until you let go of your past failures and heartaches.
What makes metaphors and stories so powerful?
- Metaphors and stories get your audience to think about your ideas in a different way.
- A well chosen metaphor can symbolise some new insight that you are trying to teach your audience.
- Visual stories let your audience process ideas in two channels of their brain, creating a deeper impact as they synchronise the visual with the verbal.
- You can use a metaphor to help a prospect see their own misunderstanding that is keeping them from moving forward with your product or service
- Because metaphors are creative and thought provoking, they stimulate the subconscious.
Be Amazing Every Day
Tim Dingle BSc (Hons), PGCE, MBA, has been involved in education, management and training for the last 30 years. Tim is a former Headmaster of a top school and gained an MBA with a distinction. His dissertation was on body language and Interview skills. He has a unique insight into teaching, leadership and management and has now written 26 books on a variety of topics including motivation, leadership, education, training, communication, interview success and business. His background in management also includes being the Chairman on England Schools Rugby and an active member of the RFU and MCC. His academic pedigree (in Biology, Teaching and Business) combined with his Mediation skills, gained him a place on the Board of the Global Negotiation Insight Institute (which used to be the Harvard Negotiation project). He has lectured all around the world with keynote speeches at many national and international events. His facilitation skills are in constant use for difficult and complex problems. His work in the hospitality sector is making a massive impact and he is dedicated to making everyone feel empowered, successful and making training fun.
The BAED Course (Be Amazing Every Day) is a core component with individual units on: Eustress (good stress), improved memory, mediation and conflict resolution, the perfect pitch, make it rain referrals, starting with why, excellence always, clear communication, leadership, team-ship, neuro-marketing, the emotional signature, interviews, body language, dealing with risk, rapport, memory, book writing, public speaking, glossophobia and the Physiology of Business.