By David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom

A slight creaking sound could be heard as the room sat silent, waiting for the door to open. No one knew what to expect. Would lives be changed forever? Anxiety amongst the group continued to grow.

We’ve all found ourselves in this circumstance at some point in our life. As children, a teacher would enter the classroom. At work, the boss calls an impromptu all-hands-on-deck meeting. How about the horror of sitting in a hospital waiting room, waiting for a doctor to bust through the swinging doors with a status update of a loved one?

In this story, the group was waiting for their boss. She entered. She slowly walked to the front of the room, took a deep breath, and said, “I want to tell you all a story.”

Did lives change that day? Were people laid off? Were people given bonuses? Was someone on the team recognized? All are possible. We don’t know the answer. But what we do know is the group’s brain chemistry changed as the boss told a story; a neurochemical called oxytocin was released.

Some of you might be thinking, “Why do I care?” And that’s a valid question. But, if you’re a leader, you should care. If you want to influence people, you should care. And if you want to engage people in cooperative behaviors, you definitely should care–because scientists are revealing the truth about what happens to people when stories are told. “A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key ‘it’s safe to approach others’ signal in the brain,” wrote Paul J. Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others.”

Everything Zak mentions is interesting. However, what we found most intriguing is the connection between great storytelling, brain chemicals, and how they work together to motivate people to help others. “By taking blood draws before and after the narrative (the story that was told), we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis,” Zak added. “Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others.”

Basically, this means that the better stories we tell, the more likely people are to engage with our cause, the more likely they are to empathize with the characters in the story, and the more likely they’ll be to contribute our effort.

The question then becomes: if great storytelling can release brain chemicals that motivate people to help, how do we learn to tell stories that inspire greatness?

1. Make it real.

Although many of us grew up hearing fables like The Tortoise and the Hare, real life stories (yes, those that actually happened) are more likely to resonate with people and motivate them to change their behavior. Much like a relative getting diagnosed with heart disease is more likely to make people stop engaging in negative lifestyle habits, stories of real living people are more likely to inspire positive behaviors because those stories reveal true possibility. Consider this: You’re more likely to believe that it’s easy to become a pop star if you’ve known someone who has become a celebrity. So tell stories about real people who have accomplished real successes.

2. Reveal the tension.

A great Hollywood blockbuster always has a point in the story where failure or heartbreak is inevitable. The tension in stories resonates with us because all of us feel different types of stresses and fears in our own lives. So when you tell a story, focus on the hurdle that existed for your character to overcome. Build the tension by sharing the anxiety the situation may have created.

3. Spotlight the resolution.

The resolution of your story is the reason you’re sharing the story. You want your audience to reach the point where they understand that the awkward guy can be loved by the popular girl, or that the underdog can win the battle because of his cunning strategy. At work, the resolution to a great story might be landing the big client even though your competition had better services or lower prices. It might be completing the impossible project even though it seemed like any problem that could arise, did arise. For a great story, focus on the big losses to expose negative behaviors that created a losing situation, and focus on the big wins to highlight the positive behaviors that allowed the people to achieve their goal.

4. Make it relatable.

If you’re telling a story of Michael Phelps winning all those medals, or Oprah becoming a media icon, or Stephen King selling millions of books, it’s important to make those stories relatable to your audience. Make sure you convey to your audience that you don’t expect them to win the most medals at the Olympics, or become a household name, or create financial gains that are out of this world. Be sure to explain that you’re simply telling the story to inspire them to become the best version of themselves–and it’s the passion, tenacity, and hard work that you want them to identify with.

5. If applicable, make it a moment of recognition.

Great stories have the ability to unlock brain chemicals that motivate people. But great stories about a member or members of an audience have even a greater impact. These are called recognition moments–when your story of intrigue, of tension, of overcoming a hurdle can have the greatest impact on motivating, inspiring, and engaging people in a cause. Try it the next time you tell a story. The results will amaze you.

“It was about 9:30 p.m. one Friday night when I stopped by the office,” said the boss. “Most of us had checked out for the weekend. And when I walked in the building–simply because I had forgotten my coat–I noticed all the lights were off except one. Over in the corner I saw Cassie, working hard and oblivious to the world. I watched Cassie closely over the next few weeks. She was asking for opinions and feedback. She was trying new and different approaches. And all that effort paid off. Congratulations to Cassie for great work. Her project has moved this company in a new direction and I want all of you to know how proud and honored I am to have Cassie on our team.”

See, that’s a great story.



David Sturt is the executive vice president of marketing and development at the O.C. Tanner Institute and the author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love. Todd Nordstrom is the director of institute content at the O.C. Tanner Institute. Throughout his career, he has been a driving force and voice of business publishing and management sciences, reaching millions of readers in print and online.

Their latest book is Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness.  Check out their NYT Bestselling book Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love.