claremont graduate university

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


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.