When Stories Kill: Its The Brain Science That Did It

Comedians use some high-voltage terms to evaluate their success onstage. To “kill” onstage — also “destroy” “crush it” or “knock ’em dead — is to render an audience helpless with laughter. Stories can also “slay’ an audience if the teller crafts it well enough. Pretty violent language for what is potentially an act of deep human connection, possibly because of the power dynamic between performer and audience. The audience responds with emotion that cannot be faked, which is richly rewarding for the performer when it goes well and so very painful — the term “dying” is used here — when it does not. If at least a portion of an audience are helpless with laughter or emotionally riveted it can have a contagious effect on the entire audience. And anyone whose role it is to communicate ideas, information or inspiration can benefit from learning how to craft a compelling story. Research into the way our brains pay and process attention provides important and effective guidelines for doing just that. Thanks science!

Actor writer and storyteller Bob Brader applies the creative alchemy of artistic storytelling with demonstrated impact on audiences. His solo storytelling show Smoker, which deals with the impact of his abusive father on his relationships with cigarettes/smoking and with important people in his life, pivots with remarkable agility from the comedic to the tragic in his compelling, truthful portrayal of 24 characters. “Comedy in a story can unite an audience and allow them to take a breath and relax after you have told them a chilling or powerful part of your show,” he explains. “To me, a good show is a roller-coaster ride taking the audience through the ups and downs.” He recently returned to New York after an international tour of Smoker, which he also performs as part of a workplace Smoking Cessation program that I facilitate for a Long Island not-for-profit organization. In training rooms with neither lighting nor stage, just a space he claims and commands through commitment to each character and to the narrative as a whole, his performance for 2 or 3 people sitting on hard chairs in a conference room is as captivating as it is for a full house in a theater.

Bob Brader, actor/writer/perfomer

Smoker combines Brader’s lived experiences with brilliant use of narrative structure and acting that pulls the audience into moments of raw reality to powerful effect. One smoking cessation participant who has long struggled against the idea of quitting, and with guilt over her attachment to cigarettes despite serious consequences to her health and pressure from family, was riveted and deeply moved by the performance. “This is my story,” she said in a whisper, gripped by the emotional resonance that got through to her core truth in a way that a lecture, a reading, or a explanation of facts never could. “Your father was my father. I never made this connection before,” she said, when the group debriefed together after the performance. “I guess I have a lot to sort out that I didn’t know was related to my smoking.” The story did the work.

Brader — whose other solo show Spitting In The Face Of The Devil won Best Show in the London Fringe, Best Script in the United Solo Theater Festival among a string of other awards you can find out about on this link — often experiences this kind of reaction to his work. “Its quite a moving and humbling experience to have someone come up to after a show and feel comfortable enough to tell some of their deepest secrets, to feel it is perfectly safe to share them. I am honored every time it happens, and it happened many times while touring Spitting In The Face Of The Devil. In Novia Scotia, a man came up to me in tears after the show and told me how his sister had been abused, and how much that affected him, and how he never talks about it with her, even though he knows he should. Another time someone simply came up to me after a show and gave me a hug saying “Please keep telling your story, because I am not strong enough to tell mine.”

The way stories work is intuitive — human beings have used them to inspire and connect since the Odyssey and the Old Testament — but science explains how it works. One would think that because stories are expressed through language that they engage the parts of the brain that process it, but neuroscience shows us something more. Research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed that when the brain hears an action word, it responds as if the listener is engaged in that action. So when a storyteller says “I waltz to the door,” the motor cortex lights up. “I straighten the collar of my velvety silk blouse” ignites the sensory cortex. “My heart races with a mix of wild excitement and anxiety as I open the door” triggers these emotions in the listener. When Bob Brader steps into the character of raging father, reassuring mother, high school crush, or any of the other characters that populate his story, the listener can experience the rush of fear an abused child endures, but from the safety of an observer’s role. When the brain experiences rich imagery and emotionally compelling moments the story has the greatest impact and is more likely to be remembered.

It is this immediacy of experience combined with the emotional distance provided by being an audience member that gifts the listener with new perspective and meaning. First, we feel, then we understand. The story does the work.

Think of the audience’s attention as a tour bus and the storyteller is the driver. Mastery in storytelling is, essentially, the ability to keep all the passengers on that bus engaged and invested so that the meaning or transformation resonates in a personal way, even if the story is about an experience listeners might never have themselves. This occurs through a combination of attention and emotion resonance. Once we focus the audience’s attention we need to drive that bus to the next important scene as efficiently and creatively as possible, filling in with all the necessary information that makes the scene meaningful and heightens the tension. As an example, check out this moment from Spitting On The Face Of The Devil

Specific details. Emotional commitment. These are what drive the audience’s attention. And attention, according to neuroscientist and researcher John Medina, is “a scarce resource in the brain.” The brain is not capable of multi-tasking with full attention, it is designed to focus attention on certain things at the expense of others. Neuroscientist Paul Zaks, who researches brain, mind and storytelling, writes in Harvard Business Review that a story sustains attention “by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.”

Getting a random group of human beings to feel the same thing at the same time seems like a kind of creative alchemy that is almost inexpressibly satisfying. Rejection from an audience can be devastating, but the thrill of making the connection to a group makes it worth the risk involved. Words and images lined up in just the right way transport the listener. Here are some guidelines that exploit the brain’s natural response to great storytelling:

Choose descriptive details and embed them with active imagery. The details are the scenery we want the audience to attend to, and the route we take connects them. We might start by directing attention to a specific moment in time: “Its St. Patrick’s Day, 1981, a Friday and I’m in evening rush hour traffic inching down 9th Avenue in New York City. Traffic is backed up to Connecticut, because its been raining for 3 days. And all I see in front of me are sheets and sheets of blinding rain.” (From my story on the RISK episode with the theme of “Turning Points”) Or to a state of mind: “At about 8 pm on Memorial Day I realize I haven’t spoken to anyone in 3 days. I haven’t left my house, answered my phone or even looked out a window since Friday morning. That’s what happens when I get into the flow of painting.” Or to a set of facts: “There are 15000 more gun shops in the United States than there are grocery stores. My home town in Kentucky, population 5, 450 had 5 gun shops, 12 bars and 8 churches. It was easier to create an arsenal than to buy groceries.” A fact gets into a person’s head more efficiently when embedded in a narrative.

Experiment with ordering the details in different ways. Start with a high-stakes scene and then fill in the information the audience needs to understand it. Then start again with a leading statement and reveal the details chronologically. Try different routes to the same conclusion and be ready to ditch the details that do not serve the central narrative.

Know what point or idea the story illuminates and choose the details that intensify the focus on it. Tell the story to a trusted colleague and listen to their emotional response as well as what they understand to be the take-away. Find out if there are distracting or confusing details that derail the narrative and be willing to edit them.

Enter into emotional moments rather than describe them. Suppose the story is about a life-changing phone call. If the set up portion of the story successfully establishes the stakes, this is the time to bring the audience into what its like during and after the call: “Its a regular day at the office when my supervisor says there is a call for me from an editor at Penguin Books. My heart is pounding out of my chest. I can hardly breathe, I want so much for this to be good news — I need this — but I know there is a better chance it will not be good. ‘We want to publish your book,” the woman says. And I say robotically ‘you want to publish my book?” like I’m Siri. “Yes, yes that’s right,’ the woman says. Then I feel a surge of what I can only call joy juice, just a burst of dopamine in my brain. Five years of working in the dark just got a green light and I’m busting!!”

If possible, set up a pattern within the narrative, and return to it like the chorus in a song. A recurring image or reference grounds a narrative the way a repeating melody grounds a piece of music. The brain is very responsive to this because one of its primary purposes is to seek and identify patterns. Combined with the novelty, descriptive imagery, and unexpected twists in the narrative this is an optimal positive experience for the human brain.

Stories that “kill” provide a rich satisfaction for everyone involved and as a result can bring about important shifts in perception. “I always feel judged as a smoker. And as a person in general. Bob Brader’s story lifted that self-judgment off of me, and I feel much more open to the idea of quitting,” reported one participant in the Smoking Cessation program,“And I laughed until I cried, and I cried because he expressed some truths I never looked at before.” “I understand myself so much better” wrote another in the post-class evaluation process. “And I feel understood. Which makes me feel I can change.” Stories do the work. Its science. And its art.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant for Lifestage, Inc and writer/performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a show featuring true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life.