The Science of Storytelling

A screengrab from Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc. Credit: Future Of StoryTelling.

Co-Founder David Lloyd-Lewis on the science of storytelling, and how it can lead to impact.

At Folktale, we think about stories a lot. Our belief in the importance of storytelling for change is why Folktale exists.

I’ve spent most of my career telling the stories of the extraordinary within the seemingly ordinary. In the last few decades, I have been invited into the lives and homes of people all around the world to help tell and share their stories. It has allowed me to meet some amazing people, and along the way I’ve had the opportunity to learn what makes a story compelling and memorable, and what resonates with us humans.

Over many cultures, languages and centuries, stories endure. And certain story structures endure more than others. But today, people are overwhelmed with information. How do we get through to people, and create those all-important sparks in their brains that lead to understanding and action?

When Sarah and I talk to people about storytelling, we often refer to this video from Dr Paul Zak, called ‘Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc’.

The video details how Dr Zak and his team tested the blood and scanned the brains of people, before and after they watched a video about a terminally ill child called Ben and his father. The video is quite short, and absolutely worth a watch: Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc.

The team found that after watching this story about Ben and his father, people couldn’t necessarily articulate how they felt. But they could see that people responded to the story in clear and measurable ways. In particular, viewers released oxytocin and cortisol, which are correlated with empathy and distress. And those chemicals and feelings correlated closely with action—in their experiment, in the form of donations or gifts.

People respond, on a deep, chemical and emotional level, to stories. The video notes: “even the simplest narrative, if it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag, can evoke powerful empathic responses associated with specific neurochemicals, namely cortisol and oxytocin.”

Interestingly, cortisol and oxytocin aren't released, or aren't released as much, when people watched a video on the same topic without being taken on a narrative journey.

Sarah and I have spent the past decade in the intersection of the worlds of global development and storytelling. We’ve seen first-hand the impact that storytelling can have in changing hearts and minds. Now through our technology, that opportunity to create that impact is limitless. So far in our journey, Folktale has helped give agency to people and communities in more than 80 countries, and allowed their stories to shape change.

Want to know more?

Speak to one of our team to learn more about how Folktale can help you understand your impact beyond numbers.

We would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of the lands where we live, learn and work and extend our respect to Traditional Custodians whose country we create on, to their Elders, both past, present and emerging. We also celebrate and embrace diversity and strive to take an inter-sectional approach that empowers those around us and is respectful of their lived experience. We endeavour to create an environment that is equitable and  inclusive for everyone we work with and for, where everyone's voice is heard.

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