The Feel Good Principle: How Hormones, Habits, and Behavior Affect Storytelling.

Image found via Erikita Goyri.

We like things that make us feel good.

We avoid stuff that hurts, feels bad, or is painful.

It’s a basic human principle — embrace pleasure, and avoid pain.

This explains why so many of us fail at New Year’s resolutions. Lets be honest, most of us suck at resolutions. Here’s the reason why: they’re usually about things we have shame or feel bad about. You want to lose 30 pounds, get out of debt and publish a best-selling book — all in 60 days. Of course you do.

Yet those same resolutions often come with a giant pile of insecurities. Within a few weeks, that sexy new gym membership goes unused and you can’t get past a second draft outline of your Great American Novel. Cue feelings of guilt, shame, and failure.

Embrace pleasure, avoid pain.

Sad truth: the more we feel bad, the less we tend to face or engage the subject. While this might make Planet Fitness rich from the 1-year membership contract we can’t get out of, it doesn’t actually facilitate the shift in behavior or thinking we wanted in the first place. Insanity, right?

This has huge implications to the use of storytelling in marketing and change-making work. In fact, it’s been at the heart of my inquiry for the past 12 years. Lately, I’ve begun to connect the dots in all sorts of new ways. I want to share with you what I’ve figured out.

The “Feel Good Principle.”

The same desire for pleasure applies to goals. Goals have to be written in a way that makes you say, “I want that because it makes me feels good.” Otherwise, all the rational thinking in the world won’t get you to eat brussel sprouts, run 5 miles a day, or skip your morning latte. The goal itself has to make you feel good, along with a payoff for following through.

In the New York Times Bestseller The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the three-step process for changing a habit. Want to wake up earlier? Anchor it. Step one, set up a cue that triggers your behavior. Step two, create a routine.

Step three? Reward yourself for it.

If you want to change a habit, give yourself a positive reinforcement. Once again, make yourself feel good, not bad, about what you want.

At Get Storied, we call this The Feel Good Principle. If you want to transform how the world thinks about your product, cause, or message, make people feel better about themselves. Without first making them feel like crap!

This flies in the face of what most of us have been taught about marketing.

Invent the disease, give them the cure.

Does this bug you as much as it bugs me?

It’s not really our fault, we’re all following the magic formula we’ve been taught and socialized to use since the dawn of modern advertising.

This is one of the biggest blind spots for marketers, change-agents, and leaders. Especially when you’re making a presentation, selling a product, or leading a transformation.

Both consciously and unconsciously, we use certain patterns to frame our story that make people feel bad — and often times we’re not even aware of it. Then we wonder why we’re not getting the level of engagement, buy-in, or sales that we hoped for!

Most of the stories we tell don’t focus enough on making people feel good.

Break free from “Inadequacy Marketing.”

Reality check: this playbook has been in use by consumer advertising and marketing since World World II and the rise of consumerism. Remind people what they’re missing, lacking, or deficient in. Then give them the cure or pill to make their troubles go away.

Hooray! Your product is the hero. Ahem.

This approach, known as Inadequacy Marketing, preys on people’s vulnerabilities and inherent dissatisfactions of modern life. Some of us celebrate it as Retail Therapy — go buy something expensive and amazingly your troubles/worries/stress will melt away. Of course, this approach doesn’t really work, and comes at a huge cost to our personal and collective wellness.

Inadequacy Marketing is well described in Jonah Sachs 2012 book, Winning The Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell and Live the Best Stories Will Rule the Future: “Since the emergence of modern marketing, professional communicators have relied on the “inadequacy approach.”

“Tell your audience that the world is dangerous, that they lack what they need,
that they don’t quite fit in. Then offer the magic cure — your product.”
— Jonah Sachs, Wired, 2013.

For far too long, “feel bad marketing” have relied on storytelling tactics that make people feel like sh*t in order to pressure them into needing what one has to sell.

And you wonder why audiences are so cynical and jaded when hearing your message?

Get Storied: StoryU Live, May 2014 in San Francisco

The storytelling science to make people feel good.

Good news, the latest neuroscience shows how storytelling can change the game.

It turns out the “feel bad marketing” is actually a poor way to approach your audience because it drives up a fight or flight response in their body. When people experience fear, they are less receptive and emotionally available than when they feel relaxed, comfortable, and safe.

The science behind feelings — your hormones at work:

Think about the way that you feel at the beginning of a public presentation, when you’re under pressure for a deadline, or when you hear a huge explosion. Your biochemistry gets to work – adrenaline starts flowing and sweat beads down your back. It’s all driven bycortisol, the stress hormone. A little cortisol (small stress) is sometimes a good thing: it helps us focus, pay attention, and make decisions.

Too much cortisol, however, triggers a fight-or-flight response.

In this extreme stress, like when our ancestors saw a lion, we had to immediately decide whether to run, fight, or freeze. Except the intensity of our modern living means most of us are already pretty doped up on cortisol from the moment your alarm goes off in the morning, to your obsessive checking of email on your smart phone, to wrestling with your morning commute. And it’s not even 9am, yet.

In contrast, the feel-good hormone is oxytocin.

Think about the way you feel after an incredible meal, OMG! sex, or an experience of profound delight. That happy high is a chemical released into our bloodstream, oxytocin, and it makes us feel good and relaxed.Oxytocin is the connection hormone: when you feel a sense of belonging, nurturing, and community — that’s oxytocin dancing through your veins.

Storytelling activates your hormones in a particular way:

At the Future of Storytelling conference last year in New York City, Dr. Zak shared research on how these hormones play out in our response to specific stories.

In mapping classical dramatic arcs in storytelling, he explains how these narrative arcs evoke particular neurochemical responses in our brains — specifically in relation to cortisol and oxytocin.

Stories that contain the classic rise-and-fall create feelings of distress and empathy in the audience.

More specifically, when the audience feels tension or distress at the moment of challenge in the story, their body releases cortisol. Later, as the narrative arc begins to tie the pieces of the story together, our bodies release oxytocin — the feel good hormone.

On a whole, good stories literally make us feel good.

(Blair Witch Project being the exception to the rule…)

A better way to influence and inspire others:

If your goal is to potentially inspire new thinking, influence people’s perceptions, and engage new behaviors — does it logically make sense to engage your audience in a fight-or-flight response?

Rather than introduce stress and fear, driving up the fight-or-flight reaction in your audience, storytelling that inspires change needs to follow a different approach.

Making them feel bad doesn’t work.

Based on the research on hormones and habits, and as we experience with every new year’s resolution we’ve made and failed to keep, we know that making people feel bad — no matter how right we are — isn’t the best way to influence or encourage change.

The mistake here is that while logical thinking can occur, decisions don’t happen inside of a rational vacuum. People behave based on their feelings. If you set up a situation where the right answer is presented, but you make people feel bad, it doesn’t matter that you’reright.

What matters is that you just made them feel bad.

Try instead the “Feel Good Sandwich”

When setting up your story, start with a framework that makes people feel good. In order to create storytelling that inspires action, begin with the goal of establishing safety (emotional and cognitive safety of relevance and lack of judgement).

Only after you’ve created an environment of safety — priming people to be open, receptive, and engaged — should you then introduce discomfort, challenge, or creative tension. This challenge engages the right level of cortisol: enough to create emotional excitement, heightened awareness, and curiosity, but not enough to instigate a fight-or-flight response.

This is what we call the “Feel Good Sandwich.”

Lead with oxytocin, the feel-good hormone — which sets up an environment of safety where you validate your audience’s reality and help them identify with something positive they want.

Once the context is set, activate a small amount of cortisol. Do this by introducing a conflict, a challenge, or dilemma. Some obstacle the character in your story needs to overcome (and your audience identifies with).

It turns out that cortisol — in controlled amounts — can be a good stress hormone that engages people in focus, empathy, and emotional response. Stories involve conflict or creative tension — enough so that we focus and pay attention.

Finally, sandwich your story with a second warm slice of oxytocin, with a resolution that brings it back to the sweet feeling of happiness. Now in the context of transformational storytelling, that doesn’t always mean “happy ending”. It can be as simple as an invitation for your audience to continue on the journey with you — the message that they can be part of a tribe or community that acts on the same things they care about. As HBR explains, our brains love good storytelling.

In plain English? To inspire people to act, tell stories that follow this clear pattern: embrace them with a context they can relate to, introduce a conflict or dilemma, and bring back a second dose of good feelings, reminding them of what we can do together.

Creating emotionally compelling narratives.

Marketing today needs to adapt to a new environment and make people feel good through stories that have resonance and relevance. Rather than adding to our already over-stressed lives, the stories that stick will add to our lives in ways that make us feel good.

This is one of the reasons why so many innovators, entrepreneurs, and even marketers aren’t getting the results that they want — why the story is lost in translation.

As storytellers, it’s not enough to have the right information, and it’s not about creating conditions of scarcity or fear. Storytelling that leads to meaningful change requires a deeper look at human habits, and our patterns of marketing communications.

What stories work? What stories resonate? Are we unconsciously sabotaging ourselves by using an approach to storytelling that actually works against us?

These are the questions that have been at the core of our decade long research at Get Storied. Why do some ideas stick while most get lost in translation? How do you create large-scale behavior change? Are we telling the right stories for the future we want to create?

What if our habits for storytelling need to change?

Stories are by definition values-laden. That is they deliver a message that elicits reaction, meaning, and feeling. Your audience either accepts or rejects, either identifies or doesn’t with the story at hand.

Stories were easy to tell when the world was simple. The shaman, the elder, or the priest could simply explain how the world worked through a set of stories that everyone in the culture knew.

Today, everyone’s becoming a storyteller. And yet a more complex world means more complex stories.

Where worldviews and value-systems collide – and meaning is left up for interpretation. When it comes to the values expressed through our story, there are ways we sabotage how the gift of our message is received.

In short — we often make people feel bad — without even realizing it.

For years, I’ve wrestled with this puzzle, trying to crack the code and explain it to others. I’m thrilled to say, I’ve got a lot to share with you that breaks these patterns down systematically, and teaches a whole new approach to storytelling for sustained impact.

This is only the beginning. It’s time to tell stories that influence, inspire, and delight.


How do you feel about Inadequacy Marketing? When does a traditional storytelling approach work in the world of business and when does it ring hollow? What about large-scale behavior change are you most interested in? Join our conversation and let us know what you think in the comments below!


Michael Margolis is the CEO of Get Storied, and the founder of StoryU, the world’s largest school for business storytelling. He also teaches leaders at corporations like Bloomberg, SAP, and Greenpeace. As @getstoried, Michael is one of Twitter’s leading voices on #storytelling. He is left-handed, color-blind and eats more chocolate than the average human. Want to learn how to story your future? Sign-up for his popular free 10-day course, The Red Pill of Storytelling.

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