Why do you care?
“Stories transport us into other people’s worlds and, in doing that, change the way our brains work and change our brain chemistry. This is what it means to be a social creature—to connect to and care about others, even complete strangers. Dramatic stories cause us to do this.”— Paul Zak
Go on, admit it. You love a bit of drama.
Of course, you’re above petty public squabbling and wouldn’t dream of making obscure, sadfish social media posts designed to elicit a “u ok, hun?” response.
But privately, in quiet moments when no one’s looking over your shoulder and your adulting obligations are taken care of, you might’ve been known to follow the thread from a single derogatory Facebook comment back through someone’s profile, history and political affiliations. Y’know, just to find out what kind of person would say something like that.
Just me then.
There’s a reason why you (or I) respond to the more salacious aspects of life—why you pay attention to and are affected by stories of individual tragedy and of triumph over adversity. Whether real or fictional, these stories trigger biological changes that affect your emotional and empathic reactions.
They even change your behaviour.
“We’re wired for story. In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there’s a surprisingly simple reason we want to own, integrate, and share our stories of struggle. We do this because we feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories – it’s in our biology.”— Brené Brown
Story is the Swiss army knife of connection-survival tools.
- It’s a tool for connection and belonging in social and family groups and with individuals, ensuring our literal survival.
- It’s a tool for entertainment, for ordering and sustaining memories, and for creating meaning from the chaos of life.
- It’s a morality tool, used around the world and across cultures to maintain social order and encourage compliance.
- It’s used by businesses, politicians, charities, campaigners and entertainers to grab our attention and change our behaviour.
It’s science, innit
Stories of individual courage over adversity have much more impact than recitation of statistics and facts. But why? Why are stories of struggle more compelling than those without conflict?
Why does a conventional narrative structure worm its way into your psyche and cause you to pay attention, to cry, laugh, rage, even donate money or blood and make other changes your behaviour?
The reasons are ingrained into your biological and hormonal responses.
Cortisol is most commonly known as a stress hormone—one associated with trauma and memory. But it’s cortisol’s role in focusing your attention that explains why stories that follow the classic dramatic arc are so effective.
In partnership with oxytocin—the hormone correlated with care, connection and empathy and ACTH—a fast-acting arousal hormone—cortisol is a fundamental ingredient in the storyteller’s store cupboard.
At moments of distress, your brain releases cortisol, causing you to pay attention to the cause of that distress. The more discomfort you feel, the more cortisol is released and so the more attention you pay to the cause.
When the stimulus is someone in crisis, oxytocin also kicks in. That someone may be someone you know—or it may be a character is a story. The more oxytocin is released, the more you feel connection with and empathy for the characters in the story.
In a kind of biological-connection-feedback-loop, the more cortisol-fuelled attention you pay to the personal struggle in front of you, the more oxytocin-driven empathy you feel. The more invested you become in the characters success and wellbeing. And so the more attention you pay to the story in front of you.
Attention and empathy are the core ingredients in any successful story. You have to pay attention. And you have to give a shit. If either of those factors misses, the story won’t connect.
Splitting your attention
Like any pattern of addiction, your focus is held not by continuous arousal or sustained trauma any more than it is by bland facts. It’s the rise and fall of drama that maintains your attention and your care. Moments of crisis and humour, periods of struggle and quiet reflection, and, if you’re kind to your characters, redemption and resolution.
Even when you think you’re paying attention, you’re only doing so sporadically.
Your attention is constantly pulled in multiple directions. In the cinema, you’re distracted by intermittent conversation, by the crackle of sweet wrappers, the glow of someone’s phone screen or the sniff-sniff-sniff of the pain in the ass in the next seat.
In a meeting or conference, your attention is taken by your own phone, the notes of the colleague next to you, or vital pondering on your dinner options.
Drama is essential to get your hormones pumping and to re-call your attention to turning points in the narrative.
Stories change behaviour
Not only are your attention and connection to a story affected by drama and struggle, but you actually change your behaviour in response to a well-told story.
In neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s now widely referenced experiment, Zak measured oxytocin and cortisol blood levels in audience members before and after they watched the story of “Ben”, a child with cancer.
Zak created two different version so the story—one that was highly emotive and explored Ben’s father’s distress at the knowledge that his apparently happy child would soon be dead. The other, a non-emotive story, made no mention of Ben’s illness, his imminent death or the grief and conflict felt by his father.
Oxytocin and cortisol levels skyrocketed in those who watched the more emotive version of the story. The degree of hormonal change in individuals was a good predictor of how much money they would donate to a related cause.
So yeah. Science.
Humans connect with humans
But let’s not forget the humanity behind the science.
“I don’t even know who a character is until I’ve seen how they handle adversity. On screen and off screen, that’s how you know who someone is.” Shonda Rhimes
Struggle is a part of being human. We all do it. Struggle is a part of every story.
Yes, your audience wants to hear stories of redemption. But they also want to recognise themselves in your story, even if they haven’t lived through exactly your situation. They know that their own story isn’t just one of rising success. They know that there can be no redemptive rise without first a fall from grace. Mess is necessary. They want to see you at your most vulnerable. They want to see your struggle. They want to be able to say “me too!”.
When trying to make sense of a confusing world, you construct stories that rationalise and compartmentalise aspects of the world and human behaviour that you can’t otherwise understand. So does your audience.
If you can do that work for them. If you offer them a story that makes sense of the incomprehensible. Or a story that provides some insight into the emotion behind your own sense-making journey. They’ll be right there with you.
One person, not every person
Quite simply, you connect with individuals—not with populations.
Which is why so many charity appeals focus on stories of an individual affected by a crisis, rather than on the scale of the crisis and huge numbers of people involved.
It’s also why, as a society, we have an increasing problem with “othering”, a defensive tactic that protects you from having to care too much about people and situations beyond your control. It’s easier to protect the individuals you already know and love, while moderating your own energy outlay, by allowing yourself to believe that the “others” are somehow subhuman, incapable of the emotions and pain that you want so desperately to protect yourself from.
It’s how slavery was justified for so many years. It’s how some people now justify closing borders in the faces of a hundred thousand individual stories of war, famine and torture. Because they are not individuals to the storyteller.
It’s a simplified truth that you care about people like you.
There’s nothing overtly narcissistic about this. It’s simply that you have finite time and resources and, in an increasingly complex world, you take shortcuts to reach decisions about what and who is worthy of your energy.
The simplest, most energy-efficient shortcut is to look for the familiar. Savvy storytellers know this and use it to their advantage.
Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.— Alfred North Whitehead
Making your story connect
So what does this all mean for your own storytelling? How do you tun the rules crafted by biology and captured by Hollywood and behavioural researchers into storytelling tools that help you connect with your own audience?
Does it mean you have to open a vein and bleed all over your audience to gain their attention and their empathy?
In fact, doing so is likely to backfire on you.
Ever been stuck on a long train journey with a stranger who vomited their deepest wounds over you the moment you sat down? Yeah, that’s always fun. Those are the people you form lasting and healthy relationships with. Right?
Story is the spark that ignites emotional connection from the fuel of information. It’s a biological, cultural, social and emotional survival tool. But connection doesn’t happen in an instant. It builds over time—over the course of a relationship.
A story is a relationship.
Just as you are on your best behaviour in the early stages of a new friendship, your audience needs time to establish trust. Until you know a friendship can “bear the weight” of your pain, you, as a reasonable, thoughtful human bean, are unlikely to bleed all over it.
First, you take the time to find out what interests your friend, what they care about, what makes them laugh, what pisses them off. You ask questions of each other. You perform an intricate and unconscious dance of mutual care and curiosity.
If you want your audience to hear you, you have to make sure they give a shit.
- You have to give them a reason to care.
- You have to show them how you are alike.
- You have to know your audience as well as you know your story. You have to care about them too.
How about you?
Consider a story you want to tell.
- Who do you want to hear it?
- What elements of the drama in your story will most likely capture their attention?
- How might you use your knowledge of that person or group to prompt genuine empathy and keep their attention through the telling of your story?