On January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy took to the stage for his innagural address.
The new American President spoke to a nation divided. For ten years, the Cold War and related conflicts in Korea, South America, and Aghanistan had plaugud the already war-weary country. Internally, too, the country was suffering. Racial tensions and conflicts over ongoing segregation and discrimination threatened to split the United States in two. As the youngest man (and the first Catholic) ever elected to the office of U.S. President, Kennedy had a lot to prove. With his speech, he had to bring the many together, win the loyalty of his suffering country, and shepherd the nation into a new, exciting era of American democracy. Kennedy not only rose to the challenge, but surpassed it. His address brought millions of Americans together and renewed their faith in both their country and their leaders.
So how did Kennedy do it? He told a story. Using his words and the a shared belief in American patriotism, he gave Americans a vision of themselves that they could believe in. There’s science behind what Kennedy did that cold January day. His storytelling activated biological mechanisms deep inside of his listeners, mecahnisms designed to help people feel closer, work together, and withstand pain for the sake of the greater good.
As leaders, we can all harness the magical power stories have to make people feel. Whether you’re rallying a team of ten or a hundred, consider channeling Kennedy by working some storytelling techniques into your leadership approach.
The Science of Storytelling
Increasingly, science confirms what humanity’s bards, griots, and religious leaders have long known: storytelling holds a primal power. It can influence people’s emotions, drive them to action, and bring them together to accomplish great things. In other words, great leaders are often great storytellers. They capture and speak to the imagination of their audiences.
A recent study by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden found some compelling evidence of storytelling’s physical impact and evolutionary roots. Their findings could have significant implications for today’s business leaders. The study’s authors set out to study the impact of narrative storytelling on children admitted to intensive care units. But what they found goes far deeper, reaching back into our species’ history to the evolutionary purpose of storytelling itself.
Throughout the study, researchers studied the potential psychological and physiological
impacts of storytelling by tracking pain scores, psycholinguistic associations, and fluctuations in oxytocin and cortisol. They collected measurements immediately before and after the children listened to narratives from a storyteller. Likewise, they did the same for an active control intervention. In this case, the intervention consisted of solving a series of riddles that engaged the children socially but lacked the immersive aspect of a narrative-driven story. Compared to their counterparts in the control group, the children listening to stories showed a notable increase in oxytocin, a decrease in cortisol, a reduction in reported pain, and an increase in positive word associations. Storytelling provided the children with demonstrable short-term benefits. These findings suggest that storytelling has a measurable positive physiological and psychological impact.
These results tie into more profound questions about the neurological and evolutionary mechanisms underlying a good story. The study’s authors suggest that the impact of storytelling is made possible by our neurophysiology, including our ability to imagine different realities and process figurative language. Stories work because they transport us. And we have brains that allow us to go along for the ride.
All of that is good news for business leaders. Every human culture tells stories. They help us build connections, influence emotions, and navigate our world. In other words, stories can help leaders accomplish some of their most important (and most challenging) goals. Next time you and your team are working to meet an important deadline, try transporting them with a story of a team working hard and succeeding. Then, you can all return from the journey refreshed and ready to do what it takes to get things done.
Stories Build Bonds By Increasing Oxytocin
Oxytocin has gained fame in recent years as the so-called ‘love hormone.’ That’s because it plays a critical role in forming, strengthening, and maintaining our closest bonds. Our brains release oxytocin in response to positive social stimuli—a hug from a friend, the touch of a newborn infant, a long kiss from a lover. It promotes trust, empathy, positive memories, and open communication.
The increase in the children’s oxytocin levels following their engagement with a narrative suggests that a good story can influence our bodies in the same way.Oxytocin both promotes bonding and helps humans withstand pain. By promoting the release of the hormone, storytelling can help us feel closer to the storyteller and one another.
Stories Keep Us Focused By Lowering Cortisol
The study also found a decrease in another essential hormone: cortisol. Cortisol controls our bodies’ stress response. Lower cortisol promotes greater relaxation and open-mindedness. Consequently, listening to stories can help foster physiological relaxation and decreased stress response, increasing our capacity for focus, empathy, innovation, and problem-solving.
Stories Help Us Keep Fighting By Reducing Pain
The experiences of the children in the study show that a good story can also help us withstand pain. After listening to a narrative storyteller, the children showed a marked reduction in reported pain compared to a control group. That’s a good too for a leader to have in their tool box. As many business leaders know all too well, sometimes great leadership is about helping stakeholders withstand temporary pain in pursuit of a long-term gain.
Why Do Stories Work?
The numerous benefits of stories aside, an important question remains: how do stories work? Why do they have so much power?
In the study’s introduction, the authors theorized that the physiological changes they observed in their subjects are linked to the immersive nature of storytelling. Great stories transport us. The brain mechanisms responsible for that immersion—our ability to envision, imagine, and dream—also trigger physiological changes when activated. When we listen to stories, we leave the confines of the present and step into the world of possibilities.
Take another example from Kennedy. On September 12, 1962, he gave a speech in Houston, TX, that changed the world. Kennedy’s address launched a project many thought impossible: landing a man on the moon. And what’s more, Kennedy announced that the United States was going to accomplish this impossible feat before 1970. In another amazing example of storytelling, Kennedy brought a fightened, skeptical public together by illustrating a vision they could all believe in. He painted a picture of a country that lead the way not only on Earth, but in the stars. And it worked. The space program received overwhelming public support. Kennedy’s vision of a man on the moon came about in July 1969, six years after his tragic death.
Putting It All Together
Leaders like Kennedy understand the power of narrative. When they give speeches or presentations, they don’t rely on logic alone. They craft stories their audiences can believe in. It’s a powerful lesson—numbers, data, and technical nuts and bolts matter. But creating a story that your audience can get lost in matters just as much, if not more.
Try incorportating some storytelling into your next work presentation. Instead of subjecting your audience to PowerPoint after PowerPoint, try a different aproach. Spend some time researching the story of someone who accomplished a goal similar to your own. Then, practice the story until you know it well, until you’ve developed a true connection with its characters.
Once you’ve forged a link to the heart of your story, it’s time to share the magic with your team members. Decide whether you’d like to use the tale to open your presentation, or whether you’d rather share it at the end to leave your listeners feeling inspired. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can even elect to prepart two different stories!
PowerPoints have a limited emotional impact for audiences. In contrast, stories imbue your audience with trust-building oxytocin, reduce cortisol to improve focus, and shrink any mental pain holding your listeners back from accomplishing the things they need (and want) to do.
Of course, the PowerPoint presentation likely won’t disappear from corporate boardrooms anytime soon. But breaking up slide decks with the passion and emotion of a good story might be just the thing your team needs to excel. At the end of the day, all businesses are made up of people. And when it comes to people, hearts, meaningful connections, and stories lead the way.