Carmine Gallo, forbes.com
The story provides the bliss point; the moment your audience falls in love.
Just as a well-crafted song tickles our brains, so do stories.
If you want people to pay attention to you, wrap your idea in a story. The story provides the bliss point; the moment your audience falls in love.
In music the bliss point is ‘the hook,’ the lines and beats that turn a song into a hit. In pop music a handful of writer-producers have mastered the winning formula and are responsible for most of the ear candy we have stuck in our heads.
If you’ve ever hummed Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” or Taylor Swift’s “Shake If Off” then you can thank (or blame) Swedish producer Max Martin. Martin has more top ten singles than Madonna, Elvis or The Beatles. According to John Seabrook in The Song Machine, “90% of the revenues in the record business come from 10% of the songs,” and most of the 10% are written by Martin and a handful of others. Martin’s name was all over the The 2016 Grammy awards (Martin wrote Swift’s “Blank Space,” The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and others).
Martin’s songs are irresistible because they follow a formula Seabrook calls “track-and-hook.” If a line doesn’t attract the ear, it’s out. The songs are so pleasing that we want to hear them again and again. In the music industry a small group of writers have discovered the magic formula. In business, however, anyone can master the technique to hook an audience because it’s a skill built in our DNA: storytelling. Just as a well-crafted song tickles our brains, so do stories.
In a series of lab tests Dr. Paul Zak discovered that compelling narratives cause oxytocin to be released in the brain, which effects our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Zak calls oxytocin “the moral molecule,” because the higher the oxytocin, the more likely people are to give money to a charity or buy in to an idea. “Narratives that cause us to pay attention and also involve us emotionally are the stories that move people to action.” Zak was inspired to conduct his research after watching Million Dollar Baby on a plane. The characters were fictional, the movie was over, he was surrounded by passengers at 40,000 feet and Zak couldn’t repress his emotions; tears were streaming down his face. “The story was so engaging it caused my brain to react as if I were a character in a movie.”
Zak was experiencing what persuasion research calls narrative “transportation.” When you are engaged in a story it can feel as though you are living the life of one of the characters. But there’s a difference between a story and a good story. When two conditions are met—likable characters and their struggles— it’s nearly impossible to turn away. A compelling story makes it more likely that customers will want to buy your products, invest in your idea or hire you.
For proof that stories tickle the brain outside of the lab, let’s step onto a TED [see] stage.
Amy Cuddy: Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy has the second most popular TED talk of all time. In her bestselling book Presence she admits to being surprised that her intensely personal talk elicited an outpouring of emotion from people around the world. “A stranger warmly greets me, shares a personal story about how they successfully coped with a particular challenge, and then simply thanks me for my small part in it.” The experiments she revealed in the talk were intended to show how our bodies influence our behavior. But it was her own personal story of surviving a traumatic brain injury—a story that was unplanned and unscripted— that turned the talk into a viral hit.
Sheryl Sandberg: Millions of women in the workplace would not be “leaning in” had it not been for a story. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has acknowledged that her original TED talk on “Why we have too few women leaders” was going to be “chock-full of statistics and no personal stories.” A friend urged Sandberg to open up about her own challenges as a working mother. The stories turned the presentation into a hit.
Bryan Stevenson: Human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson earned the longest standing ovation in TED history. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy. I analyzed every line of his now famous TED talk and discovered that 65% of the content fell under what Aristotle called pathos—emotion, story. Stevenson told three personal stories that supported his theme. When I spoke to Stevenson after his presentation he said, “Narrative is everything in effective communication.”
You might be thinking to yourself: This is too formulaic. Some musicians think so, too, and have committed career suicide by veering from the formula. Kelly Clarkson almost did so. Max Martin wrote “Since U Been Gone” for Clarkson’s second album in 2004, voted one of the best pop songs of the decade. Clarkson decided to write her own songs for her third album, leaving behind Martin’s ‘infectious hooks’. Album sales dropped 90% and Clarkson’s tour was canceled. Clarkson returned to the Swedish hit-maker for her fourth album and scored another no. 1 hit. She was back on top and never looked back.
Your competitors would love nothing more than to see you deviate from the formula. Stories are irresistible because the brain is hardwired for narrative. Tell more of them. They’re infectious.