Storytelling, the Brain & Work Culture

I love the quote by the poet Muriel Rukeyser that says “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Humans live for stories. We learn from stories at home, school, from friends, and also very compellingly at work.


Humans within a work culture are motivated by stories. Look at the famous founding myths of HP and Apple in the garages, of Fred Smith and FedEx, and many others. When new salespeople are hired, smart companies allow them to shadow the veterans until they know the War Stories by heart—another example of how stories define a culture and become its primary ambassador and sales vehicle. Once spoken, powerful words impart trust and experience, and, if told well, stories prompt core brain activities that neuroscience is just beginning to understand.


Mirroring = Connection: Listeners experience similar brain activity to one another and the speaker.


Neural Coupling: Stories light up parts of the brain that allow the listener to turn the story into their own experience, so they transfer the felt experience of the story as if they lived it.


Ah, Dopamine: Emotionally-charged events, such as listening to a good story, trigger the release of dopamine into the system, which makes details easier to remember with better accuracy.


Turn on the Cortex: Facts from a deadly power point or spread sheet get processed by only two parts of the brain (Broca’s and Wernicke’s area), but a strong story engages additional areas such as the motor cortex, sensory cortex, and frontal cortex.




While the science is interesting unto itself, it really just validates what intuition has told us for generations: stories are bonds of a culture, its invisible glue.


As a lifelong lover of stories, I earned an MFA in creative writing and still dabble as a poet and songwriter. Most people in business find these practices quaint or odd, and discount them for more conventional past times, such as watching professional sports, forgetting that eloquence can motivate, persuade, reframe perspectives, and add depth to key moments throughout the day.


To think new thoughts and go after a new market or new segment, you have to know how far a story can stretch while remaining credible, which means you will get into all kinds of brand elasticity work.


If you are launching a new product suite that is going to reset the brand in the leadership position, you have to give a name and a voice to a new growth category, such as Masstige, which means luxury for the masses. As the storyteller, you must create the right setting for your venture with well-chosen words.


The last point that I’ll add here is know your audience. Translate for them. If you know you are talking to the finance committee about an innovation platform use different language than if you were talking to product managers or with a team of marketers.


To earn credibility and trust, use their language to deliver the story. By going this extra step, by applying this empathetic curiosity, you will resonate more deeply and become one of creators of the culture.