How You Can Tell an Effective Story

July 15, 2021
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Neuroscientists continue to discover the effect that storytelling has on our brains. Paul J. Zak is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, he wrote about his laboratory’s attempts to “hack” the body’s oxytocin system to see if people could be more motivated to cooperate with others. (Oxytocin is a neurochemical that signals that someone is “safe,” and therefore we can move closer to them.)

Zak explained their experiment:

To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.

Simply put, effective storytelling changes our brain chemistry, leading us to engage with both the story and the teller. Every time I read the man-born-blind story in the Gospel of John, I find myself cheering for him and against the Pharisees. When he stumps them, I find myself thinking, Take that, you bunch of religious elites!

So, what does it take to tell an effective story? Certainly, not all stories are the same. How many have you heard that start great but go so long that your mind drifts? When we tell our stories, we want to tell them well. There are three elements to the formerly blind man’s story—the past, the result, and the cause.

First, talk about your past. You certainly don’t have to share every detail, or very many details, but give a clear picture of who you were. Just don’t dwell there. You want to spend the bulk of your story on the cause and result. I regularly tell people, “Before Jesus, I was heavily into sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” I usually don’t have to offer more details.

Then talk about Jesus. Share how you gave your life to Him. Remember, you are sharing with someone who has never had this experience. I didn’t grow up in church, and so I had very little understanding of Jesus. I would’ve been clueless had someone not explained to me His story and how salvation works.

Lastly, tell your listener about your transformation. What ongoing changes have you experienced in your life because of Jesus? What impact did giving your life to Him have on the issues you were battling? Give a clear description of your before and after. One helpful exercise to guide your perspective is to consider who you would have become had Jesus not entered your life.

You don’t have to use the elements in the same order. You can easily say: Jesus changed my life [Cause]. I can see now [Result]. I used to be blind [Past]. Or . . . I can see now [Result]. Jesus [Cause] healed my blindness [Past]. As long as you have the three aspects in your story, you are set up for effective telling.

In my book GO: Flex Your Story Power I also dig into two other important aspects of effective storytelling: clarity and time. If you can’t tell your story clearly and in a timely manner, how can you expect anyone to understand it and keep listening?

As an example, I encourage you to read how the Apostle Paul tells his story in Philippians 3:4–11. As you read through these verses, note how he communicates the past, the cause, and the result—and does so with clarity and conciseness.

Paul displays genuine story power. Short, evocative, clear . . . and written down.

This Blog is a partial excerpt from GO: Flex Your Story Power. It is available from our Trexo website where you’ll find more rich content about our ministry and personal discipleship. It is also available from Amazon.