I just finished reading a great article by Jeff Rosenblum, “Why Brand Stories Succeed or Fail.” In it, he reviews recent neuroscience around why people gravitate toward stories rather than bulleted data points.
The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, he says, is a perfect example of communication failure. NASA had time to address the problem that caused the explosion but presented its information in 28 bullet-pointed slides that were dense and hard to follow, even for experts. A recommendation emerging from the investigation of this disaster was that NASA should never again depend on PowerPoint alone to convey such important information.
Unfortunately, says Mr. Rosenblum, in business, “… we do nothing all day but present gobs of data with PowerPoint.” And we seem “addicted to overwhelming graphs and tables and somnolent presentations.” The solution, he says, is stories, which humans are hardwired to process. “Research demonstrates that stories affect us at a deep neurological level. Using fMRI technology, we’ve learned that when people tell a good story, the teller and the listener synchronize so that key areas of their brains are activated at the same time.” In fact, an engaged listener’s brain may “sometimes fire before the same region in the storyteller’s. This happens because the listener is anticipating what will happen in the story.
Wow. That’s engagement.
Where does threat enter the picture?
According to Mr. Rosenblum, storytelling is all about managing threat. With worldwide digital communications capable of spreading ideas fast, we see that “bad ideas are a threat to our careers.” A threat that the brain must assess. Unfortunately, many people presenting their ideas try rational appeals, which typically do not work.
Why rational appeals don’t work and stories do
Routing an appeal to our rational, prefrontal cortex is not straightforward. We humans make thousands of decisions a day. Our brains consume an astonishing 20% of our energy and need help to lighten the load. That’s the role of the limbic system, which includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the thalamus. Working together, they filter info and help our brains prioritize it.
When you get new information, your limbic system quickly determines whether or not it’s a threat. If the information is nonthreatening, the limbic system passes it on, but only if it’s emotionally engaging.
So what do we need to do?
Ditch the massive slide decks. They’re not emotionally engaging, and they force the brain to use its energy in inefficiently processing information.
Consider this scenario: You’re giving a presentation full of unassailable logic and tons of bullet points. Your audience, heads down, has begun checking its phones. They’re bored, but they’re also feeling threatened—subconsciously—by this new information. “They don’t want to spend their rapidly waning levels of glucose in their brain listening to you; they look for more important threats in their mobile device.” They’ve disengaged, and your chance of re-engaging them is slim. Ouch.
Yes, says Mr. Rosenblum, research and data are important to developing new ideas, but they are not enough. Cloak them in stories that make an emotional connection, and you’ve got a better chance of creating a compelling brand.
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