David JP Phillips: The Magical Science of Storytelling (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of presentations expert David JP Phillips’ TEDx Talk: The Magical Science of Storytelling at TEDxStockholm conference. David JP Phillips is the author of How To Avoid Death By PowerPoint. 

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The magical science of storytelling by David JP Phillips at TEDxStockholm


In 2009, a man — a journalist by the name Rob Walker wanted to find out: is storytelling really the most powerful tool of all? And in order to do this, he went on his computer and he bought 200 objects from eBay. And the average price of the objects were about $1.

He then called 200 authors and he asked them: “Hey, would you like to be part of the Significant Objects study, which means that I would like to write a story to one of the objects”. And 200 authors said yes.

So there he had 200 objects, he had 200 stories and I assumed that it was with nail-biting anticipation that he went on eBay again with all the 200 objects: would there be a difference? Would there be a change? Do you think there was a change?

One of the objects was this — this beautiful horse’s head. There we go, the beautiful horse’s head. Now this beautiful horse’s head was bought for $0.99 and was sold, when the story was added, for $62.95. That is a slight increase of 6395%.

So was this a one-off situation? Not really, because he bought the 200 objects for a total of $129, selling them for $8000. Now that’s insane!

But you know what’s even more intellectually challenging to understand this: how can you and I go to the movies and pay good money to watch movies like James Bond who are absolutely unrealistic. And we sit there and we enjoy the movie, and some of us, we really enjoy the movie. And we leave the theater going like, “God, what a man, ha ha! I would like to be more like him. I’d like to walk like him. I’d like to talk like him. I like Bond!”

Wonder how I could be more like Bond and then this weird revelation hits you like from nowhere and you come up with a brilliant idea to walk to watchmaker shop. And wow! It just happens to be an Omega watch in that shop that resembles the one that Bond was wearing in the movie. And you pay $10,000 to put that watch on your wrist and you leave that store feeling more like Bond.

How is that possible? PQ Media tells us that $10.5 billion is turned over in product placement revenue every single year. How is it possible for you to be so easily tricked by something so simple as a story, because you are tricked?

Well, it all comes down to one core thing and that is emotional investment. The more emotionally invested you are in anything in your life, the less critical and the less objectively observant you become. And the greatest emotional investment of all is falling in love.

Now falling in love resembles a good story. Do you remember the last time you fell in love? Yeah, good for you. It’s a beautiful feeling; isn’t it? Do you remember how you longed, and how you yearned and how you dreamed? Then you looked at her and maybe you thought, God, I love the way you chew that apple, so crunchy oh, and the way you slap that tip just over the edge, you know, oh so sexy, love it.

And then about 13 months later, when you biochemically fall in out of love — 13 months later, on an average, you fall out of love — suddenly you find yourself sitting in the sofa. Then you go, “Jesus Christ, where did this thing come from? Oh my God! Where are my friends? This is a weird thing”.

And then suddenly you hear a sound, you go like, “What’s that?” You go over to the kitchen and you’re looking, you’re like, “Oh, it’s you! You’re eating an apple there. Could you just keep that down just a little bit, yeah? You’re kind of spraying the table there, please, please don’t.”

And you sit down, comes up again, and just a minute later you hear somebody drinking tea from the kitchen going ewww! And suddenly this is all annoying to you. Have you been there, sadly enough?

13 months later, our critical thinking in our cortex comes home from a one-year long vacation and we start questioning things. Now during those 13 months, what happened was that your brain was flooded with neurotransmitters and hormones hijacking your cortex, throwing your objectively observant skills out of the window. And the thing with storytelling is that the same thing can happen.

In stories, the same hormones and neurotransmitters can be released, hormones like vasopressin, oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and you know what, that’s what I would like to do during my talk.

I would like to induce three hormones into your brain. I call it the Angel’s Cocktail. So it’s a nice cocktail. I would like to start with radically increasing your dopamine levels and I need your consent on this. Is it okay? Cool. If you don’t like the idea of that, you’ll just have to cover your ears.

So dopamine: this is what it looks like. And when you have that in your blood, these are the beautiful effects. You get more focus, more motivation, and you remember things in a better way. So what does dopamine feel like? It feels like this.

About six years ago, I received a phone call from a woman who represented one of the biggest training companies in Scandinavia. And she said, “Hey, David, we’ve got a lot of trainers in presentation skills and in rhetorics and we would like to increase the level of all of these. And we think you are a perfect pick. Would you like to come to a meeting?”

I’m like, “Wow! I’m honored, I’d love to”.

And I come up to Stockholm and I’m going to their office. And just as I am going to pull the handle down, what I don’t know then is that I’m walking into one of the absolute worst meetings I’m ever going to have in my life. But I don’t know that yet, so it’s okay.

I open the door and I meet this woman. Her name is Liana, and horridly she says, “David, just so you know I’m not the one you’re going to have this meeting with. You’re going to have it with three gentlemen further on here.”

And I’m like, OK, that’s a bit strange and usually you know who you’re going to have the meeting with. And then she progresses with a bit of chit-chatting and then suddenly she says, “Are you ready now?”

And I’m like, “Yeah, what should I be ready for?”

And then she says, “Just you know, can you see the room over there?”

And I go like, “Yes, I can see it.”

“Well, in that room you have the three gentlemen. Just so you know they’re all majority owners of this company. They’ve all got an ex-military background and then none of them wants the training that you are going to pitch.”

I am like, “Come on! Why am I here?”

And she is like, “Well, all the trainers want this but the management are on too high horses. They can’t see that they need it. So it’s pretty simple: the only thing you have to do is go in there and kind of — you know, just prove the opposite.”

I’m like, “Yeah, that sounds simple; doesn’t it?

And I could remember myself, I’m walking towards this office. My sweat is coming down my palms. My heart is racing. And just halfway there and she calls my name and I still to this day don’t know if this woman is sad or masochistic or just downright unintelligent. Because she calls my name, and she goes like, “David, and it’s like I’m going to get a tip.” You know, something like that.

So I turn around to ask, go like and she says the following: “If I don’t tell you what she says, is that annoying?”

Haha, well, actually as an example I’m not going to do that. I just wanted to prove to you what it feels with high dopamine levels. Would you say that your focus was increased, your attention was increased, you were creative, you created situations around this and you probably already figured out what that room looked like, correct? And you remember that I did that to you for quite a while. Now the feeling you had there was high levels of dopamine which is beautiful. So how do you do that?

Well, what you do is you build suspense, you launch a cliffhanger, and the most beautiful thing of all is that all storytelling is per definition dopamine creating, because it’s always something that we’re waiting and expecting. So just imagine, just by using storytelling you can get those techniques. You don’t have to do a cliffhanger like I did.

So that was the first hormone. I’d now like to go to oxytocin. Is that okay as well? I’ll induce that. All right.

The beautiful effects of oxytocin are the following: you become more generous, you trust me more and you bond to me. You want to do that? All right.

So this was — nine months have passed and it was a planned cesarean. The little brother who was 5 years of age at that point of time he was kind of really looking forward to what’s going to be — what’s going to happen. He was going to become a big brother. And he had helped us pick out the wallpaper, had helped choose the bed linen. He even saved his own pocket money to buy a little stuffed animal which was placed on the pillowcase.

About two days before the planned cesarean, something happened. Something wasn’t right. Parents couldn’t — something was off. And the day before there was simply no movement in the stomach. There was no heartbeat. You couldn’t feel or hear anything at all. So the parents were rushed into hospital, lay down on a bed, and doctor comes in, checks the stomach, looks at me and sees what I see and that is that the heart is no longer beating for this child. This is me nine years ago. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.

And I don’t know — can you just imagine what you have to tell — how you tell that to a five-year-old? Can you just imagine, because he’s home there waiting in anticipation for this coming event? But it won’t happen. So a part of me, and to handle that, I talked about it. And I’ve talked to you about it now. And now you got higher levels of oxytocin in your blood, whether you want it or not. Which means that you feel more humane. You’re bonding to me and you feel more relaxed. So how do you do that?

In storytelling, you create empathy. So whatever character you build, you create empathy for that character. And oxytocin is the most beautiful hormone of all, because you feel humane.

Now the third and last hormone is endorphins. And I would like to show you a woman which we can say has overdosed on endorphins. Let’s just look what that looks like. Oh, we’ll go here. to inspire and respond

[Video clip — laughter]

Now the timing of that is so lousy; isn’t it?

So how do you create endorphins? Well, you make people laugh. What happens then is that they become more creative, they become more relaxed. And again they become more focused, which is beautiful to have.

Now all these three hormones that I’ve induced into your brain now is what I call the Angel’s Cocktail. But there is an opposite of that cocktail, and I call that the Devil’s Cocktail.

And the Devil’s Cocktail has high levels of cortisol and adrenaline. And they feel like this: ahhh, sorry to do that to you. So high levels of cortisol and adrenaline and the problem with that is that if you’ve got really high concentrations which I didn’t give you there. But when you’ve got high concentrations, look at this. Is this something that you want to have — the people you talk to have in their blood in their system?

Now in our stressful work lives, in our stressful lives many times, when you present, when you communicate, when you deliver meetings, which one do you think they’ve drunk most of: the Devil’s Cocktail or the Angel’s Cocktail? Most commonly, the Devil’s Cocktail. And the problem then is that you’ve got all this to work against. But all of that can change today. All of that can change by you starting to use something I call Functional Storytelling.

And Functional Storytelling means that you do these three things. One, you have to understand that you don’t have to be a bearded old man in front of a fireplace with a dark voice in order to be a great storyteller. In my experience when I train people, everybody is a good storyteller from birth. The only problem is that you don’t believe in it.

The second thing is this: write down your stories. You’ll notice that you have three to four times more stories in your life than you normally — than you thought that you had.

Three, index those stories. Which of your stories make people laugh, i.e. create endorphins? Which makes people feel empathy, i.e. oxytocin?

And the next time you go into a meeting, you pick the story you want to release the hormone you wish in the person that you’re talking to, to get exactly the desired effects that you want. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Now you know me, some of you know me as Mr. Death by PowerPoint and there I want to round off with making my point very clear. And my point is this: 100,000 years ago, we started developing our language. It’s sound to say that we started using storytelling to transfer knowledge from generation to generation.

27,000 years ago, we started transferring knowledge from generation to generation through cave paintings. 3,500 years ago, we started transferring knowledge from generation to generation through texts. 28 years ago, PowerPoint was born. Which one do you think our brain is mostly adapted to?

Thank you very much.


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