Using stories to build and strengthen connections

At the core of all human interaction lies emotion. It is therefore not surprising that we prefer to do business with people we like as we thrive on relationships and connections. This holds true in both our personal and professional lives. Consequently, business people are looking for a way to fast track deeper connections within the workplace and storytelling has emerged as a natural and authentic way to do this.

Storytelling has been around since the dawn of time, however it’s only recently that modern business has started to realise the power and potential of this ancient art.

You might already be aware that telling a story makes good sense, but it is more than that. It is actually based on good science and how our brain operates.

Our brain has different parts, and each part has a different job. The left side of our brain, for example, helps us think logically and organise our thoughts, while the right side helps us experience emotions and recall personal memories. We also have a ‘reptile brain’ that makes us act instinctively and a ‘mammal brain’ that helps us connect in relationships. And our brains have a neocortex, which is connected to a complex series of nerves and networks called the ‘limbic system’. This is responsible for the development of the bond and connection we feel between ourselves and another (like the mother–child bond).

When we tell stories different areas of our brain are stimulated and start to work together, combining words, logic, emotions and sensory images. Accordingly, we see the whole picture and communicate our experience. With all this activity going on, our emotions go into overdrive.

Essentially, this means that stories provoke an emotional response. Good stories make us feel something as we listen to them — excitement, anger, sadness, empathy or enthusiasm. Our emotional reaction can mean we feel something towards the person telling the story, which helps create connection — similar to the bond our neocortex helps develop.

In the 2014 Harvard Business Review article ‘Why your brain loves good storytelling’, neuroeconomist Paul Zak revealed the powerful impact the love hormone oxytocin has on the brain when we tell stories.

Oxytocin is also often referred to as the ‘trust hormone’. Our bodies release it when we are with people we love and trust, when we hug, or even when we shake hands in a business meeting. And it’s released when we listen to stories. Oxytocin being released signals to the brain that everything is okay and it is safe to approach others — essentially, that we won’t be attacked or eaten, as would have been the risk back in the day.

So not only does a good story make us feel different emotions and a connection to the storyteller but, at the same time, the love hormone oxytocin is also signalling that we can be trusted and therefore strengthens the connection.

This emotion is important because emotion impacts our decisions. Decisions such as:

  • Do I buy from you?
  • Do I get behind this change?
  • Do I accept the role with you?
  • Do I trust and respect you?

Our audience will be forming these types of questions whether we’re trying to get them to buy-in to an organisational change or motivating them towards next year’s goals …or simply trying to connect with them.

Research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio also shows emotion plays a significant role in our ability to make decisions. While many of us believe logic drives our choices, the reality is that we have already made an emotional decision and we then use logic to justify the choice — to ourselves and to others.

Damasio’s research involved examining people with damage to their frontal lobe, which is the area of the brain where emotions are generated and that helps to regulate personality. Except for their inability to feel or express emotions, the participants had normal intellectual capacity in terms of working memory, attention, language comprehension and expression. However, they were unable to make decisions.

The vast majority of participants could describe in logical terms what they thought they should be doing, but they found it difficult to actually make a decision, including making a simple choice like deciding what to eat. This indecision came from them going over the pros and cons for each option again and again. Presented with a choice to make, we struggle to make a decision without some form of emotion influencing it.

Damasio’s research does not stand alone. According to Christine Comaford, neuroscience expert and author of the New York Times bestseller Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, 90 per cent of human behaviour and decision-making is driven by our emotions.

Not fully understanding this is often why we get incredibly frustrated when our team members do not do what we want them to do. In our mind, our request makes logical sense! But as best selling author Dale Carnegie put it, ‘When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.’

Marketing executives and advertisers are acutely aware of the power of using storytelling and emotion in business to drive purchasing decisions. You only have to look at the latest car advert for proof!

A study of over 1400 marketing campaigns submitted to the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) rated how effective marketing campaigns were, based on profit gains. The results showed:

  • campaigns based purely on emotion rated as 31 per cent effective
  • campaigns based purely on logic rated as only 16 per cent effective
  • campaigns that combined emotion and logic rated as 26 per cent effective.

This research indicates that using logic alone has the least impact and using emotion has almost double the impact. (For more on this research, go to and search ‘emotional ads’.)

Suffice to say storytelling is a powerful tool when making a connection with another person. Essentially, well told and purposeful stories initiate an emotional response and lead to greater levels of trust between you and the listener. That’s why if you’re looking to make a connection with someone in your workplace, it makes scientific sense to use a story.

This article is an edited extract from, Stories for Work: The essential guide to storytelling, by Gabrielle Dolan. Published by Wiley in February 2017.



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