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PODCAST EPISODE #22: Dr. Paul J. Zak, on the science of storytelling

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I have had numerous conversations with storytellers and journalists about why storytelling works.

But until recently, I had never thought about having that conversation with a neuroscientist.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling”. The author? A professor at Claremont Graduate University named Dr. Paul J. Zak.

I found the article compelling and reached out to the professor. He responded, and he joins me on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

Zak’s lab recently studied the ability of stories — through numerous forms and media — to develop oxytocin in the brains of their viewers. Oxytocin, says Zak, “is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others.”

Here are the big three rules for producing the finest in oxytocin-inducing work:

1) You have 20 seconds to get my attention. Rick Reilly once wrote, “Without a good lead, they”ll never appreciate your death-defying twinkle-toe transition in the third paragraph.” According to Dr. Zak, the science bears this out. Storytellers have a brief window to grab their viewers, listeners, or readers. This works regardless of medium, although, Zak says, people give print stories a little more leeway.

2) You need to provide a character to which your audience can attach. Conflict is important, too. “We avoid tension when it comes to our daily life,” says Zak, “but we love it when we’re watching a story.”

3) Don’t be afraid to get deep. A story, even of the shorter variety, benefits from emotional complexity, meaning a storyteller should try to build various storylines and themes into a piece. This revelation left me pleasantly surprised, as Zak talks about how the brain responds to ebbs and flows within even a 30-second commercial, let alone a 90-second TV news piece.

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Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera

It’s a sad but true hurdle about working as a TV news reporter:

People act differently — often way so — when they know they are being recorded.

Generally, this rears its head when trying to gather information on touchy subjects. Sources and contacts will often divulge far more after an interview than during it, and they feel much freer to provide information when they know they will not be taped saying it.

(This happens before interviews as well. Journalists everywhere can recall countless times when they spoke with someone on the phone, received valuable insight or information, and then asked that person to say the same thing in an on-camera interview, only to be told, “Whoa, whoa … I can’t say that on camera.”)

But the gaze of the lens does not just affect a story’s flow of information. It affects a story’s flow of emotion.

People get nervous or hesitant for a whole host of reasons once they know they will be recorded. For the most part, they simply do not have experience with having their actions documented, and often they respond by behaving how they feel they “should” behave, instead of how they genuinely want to behave.

For storytellers like myself who specialize in emotional stories, this creates a giant challenge.

But when you surmount that challenge and capture genuine emotion — and put your viewers in a position to appreciate that emotion — you feel tremendous about what you can achieve in this business.

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Beep baseball, and my two minutes of blindness

It had been a frustrating morning.

Back in May I was made aware of a baseball team in my home city of Atlanta that played every Saturday during the spring. The team was special for a powerful reason: each of its players was deeply visually impaired, if not completely blind.

At the time I anticipated a tremendously moving story, but I could not find a day to shoot it before their season ended. However, I was told, the team — named the Atlanta Eclipse — would be a part of a truly special event in late July: the World Series of beep baseball.

(The sport is called “beep baseball” because the ball beeps, so that the players can hear it.)

I then learned that the World Series would feature 19 teams from around the country, as well as the defending world champions from Taiwan. Beyond that, it would be held in Columbus, Ga., a mere 90-minute drive from Atlanta.

I got excited. The story, I felt, had great potential; I would simply have to cool my heels for two months until the Series arrived.

But now, nearly two months later, I was frustrated.

I had arranged to shoot a practice several weeks before the Series, but the day beforehand I learned that a majority of the players would be unable to attend, for various reasons. I showed up on a rainy Saturday morning to find just three players — along with their aides and the team’s volunteers and coaches.

Because of that, and because of the weather, I did not have much to shoot. I got whatever video I could, but I knew it would pale in comparison to what I would see at the World Series.

Hence the frustration. No one was to blame, but I found myself spending valuable weekend hours on a shoot that had produced disappointingly little.

So I decided to play.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Mark Cuban, Nick Beef, and Phil & Harvey

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

I cannot remember the last time I traveled somewhere that had triple-digit weather.

But this past week, I took a two-day jaunt to Dallas for a story about the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It was a powerful experience … and hot, definitely hot.

Perhaps I am in a Dallas state of mind, but I chose two Dallas-related stories — one of which indirectly relates to JFK’s assassination — to lead off this week’s “3 Great Stories”. The final story takes us to the Twin Cities for a landmark moment, covered in tremendous fashion by the video wing at the area’s biggest newspaper.

All three stories features wide, multi-dimensional windows into their main characters.

Mystery from the grave behind Oswald’s, solved (8/9/13, New York Times): Among the circles of relevance surrounding JFK’s assassination, Nick Beef probably lands as far from the center as possible.

For nearly half a century, “Nick Beef” has simply been known as the name on the gravestone immediately beside that of Lee Harvey Oswald. No one was sure whether “Nick Beef” was an actual person, let alone whether said person was still alive.

Now, we know.

Nick Beef is alive, and he is actually a self-described “non-performing performance artist” living in New York. He reveals himself to Dan Barry of the New York Times; through Barry’s paragraphs, he comes off as quite the morbid soul.

Something else happens in Barry’s article. Dealing with a subject — the assassination — that has been dissected so many times through the years, Barry examines a man whose own story is relatively unremarkable. The mystery of Nick Beef winds up more fascinating than his emergence.

But Barry does not try to oversell his subject. He simply recounts Mr. Beef’s story in a way that allows us to get to know the man in question, and he solves an age-old mystery in the process.

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