Why Storytelling is Powerful

We all love a good story and appreciate a good storyteller. Powerful stories evoke emotion and have the ability to motivate and inspire us. A story that always resonates with me is one about Pat Tillman. Pat was a former professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals who enlisted in the United States Army after the 9-11 attacks. Tragically, he died in combat due to friendly fire. When you listen to his story, you feel many emotions, and those feelings are powerful motivators.

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said, “The art of storytelling can be used to drive change.”1 I agree and will add that the way we succeed in driving change is by motivating and inspiring people.  Do we inspire and motivate change with a data dump of facts and figures on a PowerPoint slide? No. That type of presentation just creates a lullaby that too often puts the audience asleep. “If people aren’t entertained, they stop listening and go to sleep not unlike what happens in millions of business presentations given every day.”2

Princeton University neuroscientist, Uri Hanson states, “Those who have mastered the skill of storytelling can have an outsized influence over others.”  He goes on to say that “a person who tells compelling stories can actually plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into a listener’s brain.  The art of storytelling is your most powerful weapon in the war of ideas.” 3

The only way to understand the power of this weapon is to understand how the brain functions when hearing a story.  Hearing a moving story releases the chemical dopamine in our system. That’s right, the same chemical that can get us addicted to drugs, alcohol, and gambling.  According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “When your brain detects emotion, your amygdala, located in your frontal lobe that helps create and maintain emotions, releases the dopamine. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-it note® that reads “remember this.”4

In Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire,” he describes the golden circle: Which, Why, How, What.  We all know what we do and how we do it, but do we know why we are doing it?  He ties this concept back to the brain, and explains the brain slightly differently than John Medina although the message remains the same.

Simon states, “If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. In our newest brain, the Homo sapiens brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought, and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It is also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, although it has no capacity for language.”5

He goes on to say, “In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior. When we can communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do.”6

In other words, “emotion trumps logic”7 every time. This is why stories are so powerful.  They evoke emotion, and emotion drives behavior.  Marketing executives understand this and if you don’t believe me, watch most commercials. The Budweiser beer commercials are a case in point. Each holiday season they feature darling, warm, cuddly puppies, and everyone loves puppies. That emotion, love, connects us to the story the company is telling in a deep and meaningful way.

Once we accept the fact that “emotion trumps logic” and begin to craft our business presentations in the same manner, the more likely we will be able to inspire and motive people to action.  That is exactly what great leaders and organizations do.



  1. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 1
  2. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 3
  3. Ibid, 4
  4. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (Pear Press, Seattle, WA, 2014) 112
  5. Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire”, 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action/transcript#t-399040, (accessed August 2, 2017)
  6. Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire”, 2009
  7. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 4