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Stories are the brain’s natural language
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Communication
You might be familiar with Anecdote’s story spotting framework. If you are, you’ll know that a fundamental aspect of stories is that they must contain a sequence of related events. If you don’t have a sequence of events, you don’t have a story.
Stories are so powerful because that is how our brains are structured—our brains work by identifying and predicting sequences of related events.
The neocortex—the large, wrinkly outer layer of our brain—accounts for about three-quarters of the brain’s volume. This organ is responsible for synthesising the information we receive from all of our senses, and it also houses our thoughts, personality, and knowledge. All of the incredibly diverse abilities of human skill, creativity, and imagination lie within the neocortex, and all are stored, processed, and work in a similar way. And I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to do with business, sales or leadership, but, hang in there, it’s important.
The neocortex operates on a single common algorithm—sequence memory prediction. It learns repeating patterns—sequences—from your eight senses. From these patterns, it builds a model of your external and internal (body) environment and predicts what will happen next. Then, it enacts predictions as action. All your conscious actions are in fact enacted predictions from the mental model in your neocortex. The neocortex is the ‘first responder’ in most situations because prediction is an early warning and anticipation is faster than stimulus response.
What you ‘see’ with your eyes as you move around is not like a video image of the world—that’s an illusion. The raw ‘image’ coming from your eyes is blurred and jittery. You focus on only the central part of your field of vision and your brain stitches these poor images together. So, what you ‘see’ in your mind is a prediction of the world around you based on a mental model. That is how you can ‘see’ things with your eyes closed, as when you are planning or imagining something. Our brains spend a lot of time running the prediction model without reference to the outside world, that’s what’s happening when we daydream, plan, or recollect the past.
We update our mental model when our predictions fail and we encounter new experiences, either directly or indirectly (through someone else’s stories).
Emotions are an integral part of our mental model. We construct our emotions in our model in the same way as we construct visual concepts such as ‘chair’ or the colour ‘red’, or abstract concepts such as ‘money’ and ‘buyer’.
Imagine you are walking in the bush when you hear a rustle in the undergrowth on one side of the track. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a shape and your mental model predicts ‘snake’, a concept that is stored together with an emotion called ‘fear’. Fear, in turn, triggers an increase in your heart rate. You also feel an unpleasant clutch in the chest; you jump backwards and start to sweat. Your internal body senses have been activated by the prediction. By predicting it and sending a message to your body, your neocortex created that fear. Your neocortex predicted the vision and sound of a ‘snake’ and simultaneously predicted fear. Maybe when you look more closely and discover that the ‘snake’ is actually a stick, your heart calms down and your ‘vision’ is updated.
What if you had never seen a snake before and had never seen another person react to a snake in a way you conceptualised as fear? In that case, with no mental model of either ‘snake’ or ‘fear of snake’, you would not respond fearfully. The rustling sound would either pique your curiosity or you would choose to ignore it. You develop your mental model through experience.
You must experience repeating patterns from your senses to create and update your model of the world. Your experience may be direct or indirect (experienced through someone else). If the snake was real and bit you, that direct experience would have triggered an update of your mental model of ‘snake’—if you survived! Fortunately, we can learn indirectly from other people what a snake is and what to fear. If I tell you a story about seeing a snake, and describe or act out my fear, my story might arouse fear in you. A fear emotion from experiencing a story can induce sweat and set your heart racing just as if it was you who encountered the snake.
Stories allow us to share our own experiences and update the mental models of others. When something unexpected happens in a story, we pay close attention to it so that we can update our mental model. This is how stories change minds.
Facts, figures, and assertions
Facts, figures, and assertions are not our mind’s natural language. They are difficult to assimilate because, generally, they are not in a sequence that causes us to predict. If you hear someone say, “A, B, C, D and therefore E and F…” you’ll happily follow the sequence. But if they say, “Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet…” you may not be so sure—you might recite the alphabet to yourself to check. Stories, meanwhile, unreel in a sequence and allow us to easily make connections between events. So, stories are a low-energy, low-effort way of passing on experiences and information.
Coming back to the story spotting framework, another fundamental aspect of stories is that they contain something unexpected. Whenever we can easily predict the next event, our brains enter a subconscious state and we stop paying attention. When we don’t know where a story is going, we pay attention. This is why it’s essential to have something unexpected happen in your story.
When you tell a story that keeps your listener guessing, you are feeding them with information precisely configured for their brain—in the brain’s natural language—and that’s why we love stories so much.
Part of this blog post is an excerpt from Mike’s book: Adams, Mike. 2018. Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. (Kona Press: Melbourne, Australia).
About Mike Adams
Mike is an expert facilitator and story consultant who has helped numerous national and international companies, across many industries, to tap into story-powered sales. He is also the author of the international bestseller Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. Connect with Mike on: