Ben is two years old. Ben is dying. His father shares with you – speaking directly to the camera – his hopes and fears for his small son, his passion to protect him, his moments of joy as a father, knowing they are temporary. But he’s determined to live in these brief happy moments, for Ben’s sake.

Few people could turn away from a story like this. We hear a lot today about the importance of stories in communication. Why are they so powerful? Researcher Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University has some answers.

It turns out that stories actually change the chemistry of the brain. When a good story grabs our attention, heart rate and breathing speed, stress hormones are released and focus is sharpened. As the tension of the story increases, we start to emotionally resonate with the characters – we begin to experience their emotions and even physiologically feel what we imagine them to feel.

This kind of emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and the ability to form relationships with others. Zak cites research that has identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. His lab work found that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people become more trustworthy, generous, charitable and compassionate. We’re more likely to help others and to identify with others.

So what do these findings mean for communicators? If we create moving, emotionally involving stories, those reading them are more likely to respond to us in a positive way – with donations, with help, with engagement, with taking the next step in a relationship leading to commercial interaction.

Here are some tips for making your story powerful:

  1. Use the classic Greek story structure to build interest and tension: a captivating beginning that presents a problem or challenge, escalating tension and conflict, and a cathartic conclusion.
  2. Think of your story as the hero’s journey: the hero is challenged, tested, almost vanquished, learns a lesson, and ultimately triumphs, a better person for it.
  3. As the story unfolds, make the viewer wonder: what comes next?
  4. Bring emotion to your story. Engage with the head and the heart. Remember those polar bears and the Coke commercials?  Is it possible to see a polar bear today and not think warmly of a cold, bubbly brown beverage?
  5. Be vivid, bold and high impact to “transport” your audience into the story’s world. That’s why video is so powerful today: Seeing the story visually and in images is much more affecting than words on a page.

Want to tell a vivid story about your organization? Scott Public Relations’ team of journalists, novelists, and literary editors can help you.