paul j. zak

PODCAST EPISODE #31: “Best Of”, The Way We Act


The number of podcasts is mounting up.

More than two years since I penned my first post for the Telling The Story blog, I have also had the pleasure of producing 30 podcasts. Each one has enabled me to interview a journalist or storyteller from across the media landscape.

I looked back at the list a few weeks ago, and I saw a few recurring themes.

One: I have gravitated towards guests who explain why we act the way we do — not as storytellers, but as recipients of storytelling. These guests are not necessarily journalists in a traditional sense, but they have used an expanding number platforms to explore the subject.

Such brings us to Episode #31 of the Telling The Story podcast: a “Best Of” edition on how we behave.

You’ll hear snippets from previous episodes with the following guests:

Ryan Shmeizer, a venture capitalist by day, on why we love list-based articles: “Lists are so tempting because they present the illusion of a satisfactory quick fix … but I do think, sometimes, hard-core, factual information that is hard to digest is often well served in list form.”

Dr. Paul J. Zak, professor at Claremont Graduate University, on the science of storytelling: “If you don’t get my attention in about 20 seconds, you’re gonna have a much harder time. … Print, you actually have a longer period of time, because people’s expectations are that it’s going to take a while to get through a page of text. But I think this says that the first paragraph, or even the title, signals that something’s gonna happen here.”

Clive Thompson, freelancer for Wired, the New York Times, and others, on the rapid evolution of language in the early years of social media: “Because we’ve had this shift where so much more conversation is happening in the written form, I think it’s almost like an evolutionary pressure to push language forward.”


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.