The Storytelling Lab - Ep34: The Science of Storytelling with Paul J. Zak
Updated: Apr 27
We’re kicking off Season 4 with an all-star guest, Paul J. Zak, neuroeconomist and storytelling expert. Paul studies the neuroscience behind storytelling and is full of knowledge about how narrative form affects our brains and informs our actions. Listen in to hear more about neuroeconomics (the study of how people make decisions), the science behind storytelling, and why narrative arcs are necessary to incite action.
When I first started my journey into helping people through storytelling, one name kept coming up during my research: Paul Zak.
It didn’t matter if it was Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, TED talks, or various psychology journals, he was there.
If you’ve heard of the hormone oxytocin and how it (along with hormones like cortisol and dopamine) is created in the brain during storytelling, or if you’ve heard of “neural coupling” -- a process that creates a neural link between a person telling a story and the listener -- then you have probably heard of him.
I have referenced Paul Zak’s work in every presentation I’ve ever given on storytelling.
All of them.
That’s how important his work has been for understanding why stories work. His work is
the defense we have when our bosses or
clients think that storytelling is just “fluff.”
Storytelling hasn’t always been as popular as it is now.
We have Dr. Paul Zak to thank for that.
When I spoke with him on the show, I was excited, but also a little nervous.
Zak is a neuroeconomist, storytelling expert, and professor at Claremont Graduate University. He studies the neuroscience behind storytelling and is full of knowledge about how narrative form affects our brains and informs our actions.
He’s also the founder of an innovative new company called Immersion. Immersion is a SaaS platform that measures attention and the unconscious emotional response people have to compelling content. This platform can predict future actions with 80% accuracy!
But on top of all that, he’s also a super nice guy. We talked for an hour about how stories affect the mind and why we love them so much.
And even though he is a scientist, he still understood the fluff - because the fluff is backed by his research!
“You really have to get to that emotional core for people to care. When we see that, our brains know it. So build some empathy and find those authentic emotions.” - Paul Zak
I am extremely proud of this episode.
If you want to learn about neuroeconomics (the study of how people make decisions), the science behind storytelling, and why narrative arcs are necessary to incite action...
go listen now!
Some highlights of our conversation:
New prospects for neuroscience in the coming decade
How people are getting better at creating experiences for their audience
Why Zak identifies first as a “tool guy,” instead of neuroscientist or storyteller. (He likes to solve problems)
The meaning of “Spark Bird:” Decisive moments of change
Researching the neurologic motivations behind why we help other people
How Zak and his team tested cooperative behaviors
Their findings: ads that have narrative arcs lead to more charitable giving
Why stories motivate action from a neurological standpoint
How Zak’s research helps soldiers be better communicators through storytelling
Zak’s current work as a professor at Claremont graduate university where he runs a behavioral neuroscience lab
How to measure a person’s emotional reaction to stories
Creating technology that helps companies use Zak’s research
How movie trailers can use neuroscience to get audience members to buy a ticket
Picking different stories for different demographics
Why we like stories: how our brains and bodies react to narrative arcs
The effect oxytocin has on cooperative behavior
Immersion: what is it and why is it important?
Why you need to grab attention in the first 15 seconds of a story
Why it’s important to vary the levels of tension in a story
Content still needs to be good (even if you have a narrative arc)
Why self reporting emotions does not work well for neuroscience
How to know when a story really works
Storytelling and health
Why you have to be able to relate with your audience
How to influence people’s emotions in order to change their actions
What form of storytelling works the best: Video, audio, or face-to-face?
Neuroeconomics: studying the brain activity while people make decisions
Neurologic diversity: why people do different things in the same situations
Storytelling for beginners: you have to be authentic
As always, enjoy the episode!
Peace and Love,
Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulJZak
And check out his website pauljzak.com
For more storytelling tips and tricks,
Follow us on Instagram @sixsecondstories
Visit our website sixsecondstories.com