Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Jun 03

The Contribution of Neuroscience to the Art of Storytelling: 5 Lessons to Become Better Communicators

Luca Penati

by Luca Penati
Category: Media, Technology

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak at the BLUE Mind Summit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It was the first conference in history to bring together leaders in neuroscience and ocean exploration. It was an incredible experience and you can read more here on this initial blog post by Wired’s Sheril Kirshenbaum.

So what the heck was I doing there, you might ask. Fair question.

Inspired by our Global CEO, Chris Graves, at Ogilvy PR, we have been following closely how certain advances in neuroscience are translating into the discipline of public relations and communications.

After the jump is the presentation on Slideshare and my speech. A big thank you to Dr. Jennifer Scott for helping me in put this together (Jennifer is on the Board of SeaWeb who partnered with Ogilvy on this presentation).

We have found that neuroscientific insights have helped us validate some of our established best practices in communications.

The most significant contribution neuroscience has made to our business has been in helping us enhance our skills in the art of storytelling.

Storytelling is as old as history itself, and all great communicators have been brilliant storytellers. Now, thanks to neuroscience, we understand more about why this is the case.

Neuroscience confirms that storytelling is critical to effective communications because – well done – it has unique power to change opinions and behavior.

The implications for environmentalism are significant. We know from painful experience that the most potent facts and rational arguments for conservation have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Storytelling helps us to communicate the urgency of the situation and the need for immediate action in a more powerful way.

Several psychologists have been supporting this point of view in the recent years:

  • McAdams (1993). “It is because of the narrative nature of human minds at and before birth that we are impelled as adults to make sense of our lives in terms of narrative.”

  • Bruner (1998). “Humans have an inherent readiness or predisposition to organize experience into story form: into viewpoints, characters, intentions, sequential plot structures, and the rest.”

  • Pinker (2000). “100,000 years of evolutionary reliance on story has built into the human genetic code instructions to wire the brain to think in story terms by birth.”

So let me briefly share with you some of the neuroscientific insights that have had the most impact on the way we work as professional communicators.

  • Antonio Dimasio’s work challenged conventional notions that human decision-making is driven purely by rational cost-benefit analyses. Using case studies of patients, Dimasio showed that lesions of the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex interfere with emotional signals, but leave other cognitive functions intact. However, this damage to the emotional centers results in pathological impairment to the decision-making process. Dimasio posited the “somatic marker” hypothesis. This suggested that emotional memories are stored in our brains, where they play a significant role in future decision-making. Dimasio said “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” In this way, he has helped us understand that a purely rational appeal to someone can be far less effective in terms of driving behavior change than one that has emotional resonance.

  • Another thinker who has helped us to hone our communications skills is Dr. Charles Lord, who back in 1979 coined the term “confirmation bias” – showing that strongly-held convictions can actually harden in the face of contradictory rational evidence.

  • Lord’s work has been extended by Dr. Drew Westen at Emory University. He showed that when people were confronted with evidence contradicting their political positions the emotional areas of the brain lit up, rather than the cognitive and reasoning parts. Even more telling, was that the part of the brain that share out feelings lit up, confirming the decision to deny the evidence. So the big lesson is that in trying to persuade, convince someone or change their views– appealing to logic with cold facts is not effective. In fact, it can harden opinions. Emotion is the key. And great storytelling drives emotional connections.

Finally, behavioral psychologists have added their own insights to the discoveries of neuroscience

  • In 1968, Nobel Prize Laureate Thomas Schelling developed the notion of the “identifiable victim effect” where results found that people were far more willing to come to the aid of a clearly identified individual than to a whole group in need.

  • In a more recent piece by researcher Paul Slovic of the firm Decision Research, he determined that there is a steep falloff of sympathy and willingness to donate to a group, versus a single identifiable individual. In fact the drop off starts with just two people!

  • Then, in 2007, Wharton School marketing professor Deborah Small discovered a powerful new piece of information. Our capacity to care drops as soon as statistics enter the story. Statistics can actually engage our cognitive capacities and help us detach from the emotional pull of a single individual. Small has said: “It’s easy to override people’s feelings by giving them rational information.”

So, neuroscience has taught us that we need to tell our stories in a way that lights up the brain and moves people in a way that ultimately matters in decision making.

Here are 5 lessons that should help us in becoming better and more persuasive communicators:

  • Neuroscience has taught us that powerful storytelling is about SHOWING and not telling. By “SHOW” we mean to create a scene in the mind of the listener that they can inhabit with their own “somatic markers.” Telling is exposition—plot summary—that does not light up the emotional parts of the brain. It is only through the powerful language structures of SHOWing that you can do that.

An example of “telling” might be: “Large swordfish are being fished out.”

An example of “showing” might be: “Nora Pouillon looked in dismay at the immature swordfish on the table in her restaurant kitchen in Washington, DC.”

  • Neuroscience has also taught us the importance of providing evocative scenic detail that triggers listeners’ somatic markers…

…So we might want to add words to our communications like…the biting wind, the icy sea spray, the cry of gulls.

  • Keep it simple. Sometimes we let too many complications get in the way of the emotive punch of the story.

This is beautifully illustrated by one of the greatest short stories ever written by the Great Man of American Letters… in a bar …. in Key West… on a bet….

“For sale:

baby shoes.

Never worn.”


  • Ban mind-numbing words like “synergistic,” “innovation,” and even “sustainability.”

These might be the language of your field or profession, but they really serve to create distance between you and the listener.

  • Avoid reason and facts. They are important, but not motivating and can cause us to override our capacity to care.

We know that a story of 50 whales beaching in Tasmania can trigger an outpouring of sympathy and attention while a story detailing the facts about how sonar might be causing whales to beach does not trigger the same kind of response.

So neuroscience has taught us a lot about why great storytelling is at the essence of great communications. We believe that great good can come of harnessing these insights in the defense of our natural resources and especially our oceans.

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide