Why Stories Captivate: Tomas Pueyo at TEDxHumboldtBay (Full Transcript)

The elder Homo sapiens hobbles towards the fire. The younglings gather around him and sit down in silence. They’re eager to hear from the most famous hunter of the tribe. He wants to impart his knowledge. He clears his throat, and begins.

There is a 25% probability of finding predators near the river. Big felines run 50% faster than humans. Trees double the lifespan of helpless hunters. Poor younglings… Do you think they’re going to remember anything? Have you been in a situation like that where you were bored to death in a presentation? And what about that poor hunter? He spent a lifetime honing his skills as a hunter and way too many hours on that PowerPoint. And yet his experience is going to die with him because he couldn’t communicate it.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like that where you tried to teach something to somebody but you couldn’t get him to remember anything, say “Aye!” If you’ve ever tried to convince somebody of something with arguments, with reason, but they don’t reason, they don’t listen to arguments, say “Aye!” This has happened to all of us.

Being right is not enough. We need to be able to communicate it and for that, facts and reason just don’t make it. That’s why the most famous TED speakers in the world only spend 25% of their talks telling facts and 65% telling stories. And they’re right. Stories are 2 to 10 times more memorable than facts. Let me repeat that, because I just gave you a fact, so it’s not very memorable. Stories are 2 to 10 times more memorable than facts alone. And that’s why the most influential books in history are series of stories and they’ve spawned the biggest religions in the world.

Stories are powerful. So why don’t we use them more in our everyday life to communicate? We should be using them all the time but in fact we use facts, we use reason. And I think there’s two reasons for that: Number 1: we’re not really sure why stories captivate so much. I mean, we’re rational animals. We use facts every day. Can’t we just keep using that?

And the second one is: We’re not really sure how to craft stories easily. And I asked myself these two questions all of my life. My father is a film-maker. We talked about stories at home all my life. I studied some scriptwriting in grad school and I even wrote a book about story structure. That taught me how to craft stories, but not why stories captivate. The answer came to me from my job. I have to read a lot of neuroscience for it and the neuroscience of stories is ‘crazy’. So I’m going to tell you about it but instead of just telling you about it we’re going to do a little experiment, OK?

As I tell you about the neuroscience of stories I want you to analyze what’s going on in your brains, OK? All right, let’s go. If I tell you “bipedal motion”, what are you thinking? Walking, OK… Usually your brains are trying to decipher the words maybe put them together. A couple of parts of your brain are getting activated. They’re different for all of us. You’re trying to decipher the words, picture them. And it’s hard.

If instead I tell you about a group of women who’re running. And they’re pushing with their feet against the ground as hard as they can; their muscles are tensing, the wind is blowing on their faces — Did you notice that? It was a bit different, right? In your brain… What was going on? The part of your brain that would make you run in reality got activated. And the part of your brain that would make you feel the wind on your skin got activated too. Your brain can’t tell the difference between hearing a story and actually living an experience. It’s crazy! It’s like virtual reality: they’re creating a virtual world and your brain can’t tell the difference between the real world and the virtual world.

What if I told you about three evil boys. They’re chasing you on their bikes and they want to hurt you. So you try running away, but you can’t because you’re crippled. You still push as hard as you can and finally you break free! And you’re able to run! What happened there, in your brain. Did you feel like you were more engaged? Did you feel like you were there? That’s actually what was happening in your brain. It feels like you were there because your brain activity is the same as the brain activity of the main character.

In fact, it was the same brain activity for all of us: you, me. By telling a story, I was able to “telepathically” communicate what was going on in my brain. It’s like pure empathy. All of this brain activity in your brain is making stories memorable. It’s drilling them in your brain.

So, what is a story from a neuroscience perspective? It’s an empathy machine. It’s a device that enables you to get into somebody else’s brain to experience their experiences, think their thoughts, and feel their feelings. It’s pretty cool, right? It’s pretty cool, right?! (Audience: Yeah!) So this is why stories are powerful, and we need to know how to use that to craft good stories.

If you ask Aristotle 2000 years ago, he would tell you about the three acts of a story: beginning, middle and end. But I never found that really super insightful. We need a bit more detail to be able craft stories. So this is a recipe that you could use. But I’m not going to tell you about it. I’m going to show you.

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