Why the Brain Craves Stories

I have heard the advice “Show not Tell” given to many presenters many times. I myself, have given it many times. But, do you why “Showing” and not “Telling” is so powerful? Let`s look at the following example:

Logical and Concise

Imagine that a web designer at a certain hospital presented the following slide:


The top 3 Complaints about the website

  • Hard to find the search box:   20%
  • Not mobile ready:              17%
  • No map of the hospital:         13%

Survey of 150 users of Children`s Hospital of Kanagawa (CHOK)


Web designer then goes to shows screen shots on the next couple of slides pointing out the problem areas. Then based on these complaints shows a few graphics on possible design solutions.

What do you think? Simple, logical and to the point, right?

There is nothing wrong about it as far as it goes. But imagine the following:

The Story of the Arima Family

The daughter of a Mr. Arima recently fell suddenly ill. She had a high fever and hard time breathing.  She was rushed to the local general hospital. The local doctors took her in but, after examination discovered they were not able to handle her unique illness. The Arimas were told to go to the Children`s Hospital of Kanagawa. It was more than 50 kilometers away.

About halfway, Mrs. Arima remembered that hospital had a website. She pulled out her cellphone and looked at the website.  The text was very small, stylish and grey.  It was like the normal desktop website.  

She looked at a bunch of links. She touched a bunch of them, but none seemed to lead to the right information to find her daughter. There was no search window, and no place to get a map of the hospital. Even though she was holding a phone little did she realize that the towards the bottom in small font was the phone number of the hospital. If she had noticed that she could have called the hospital and listen to a voice telling her all the information she needed. Instead she got angry and threw the smart phone on the floor.

It is design mistakes like the ones I have mentioned that make it hard for the Arima`s and hundreds like them to get the information they need. We have survey over 150 customers and listened to their stories and our website has been found wanting. We need listen to our customers like the Arima`s and make the changes now.

The Choice

Give a choice between a purely logical presentation and the addition of a story, which one would you take?

The obvious answer is the one with the story. But why? The answer lies in our brains.

When our brains receives a simple set of statistics on a presentation slide, that information goes into the Broca`s brain. It processed and that is it.

On the other hand when you add a story to it, more parts of the brain is used.  Details about sight, sound and touch trigger parts of the brain used for those areas. Details about how the characters felt trigger the part of the brain that handles emotion. Instead of simply objectively looking at the information, we imagine the experience and feel the emotions of the people in involved.

The Story and the Brain

So, why does the brain spend so much time and energy on a story?

Our brains were wired to help us survive and not get eaten by sabertooth tigers. Since we don`t have anywhere near the number of instincts as animals, we need to understand how things work. How A causes B, or if I do X then Y happens. We can learn about the world through our own experiences. But how much can you learn and experience by yourself? Not much. Think back to all the things your teachers taught you, or what you learned in books.  These are things that you did not experience directly yourself, but you learned about them nonetheless.

So, our brain being a lazy organ that it is saves time, energy, and reduces risk by listening to other people’s stories. BTW, our brains also hate to store details that are not important. Story memories in the long-term memory take time and energy. Even though it would seem energy efficient to engage only the Broca brain (language processing area), if we did we would end up storing too much garbage.  

After all how much of the conversations you have heard, the text that you have seen that is actually useful to you? Probably not much.

So, to get people to remember your point. To get them engaged and eventually persuaded you need to tell them a story. Not just any story. But, a story that is relevant. A story that they can relate to.  A story were the stakes are high enough for people to care. So, don`t just tell show them the entire story.

If you have any questions about storytelling or anything else please let me know.  I look forward to hearing from you. If you want to get more articles like this in your mailbox please subscribe!Have a great day!