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WHAT happens when you hear a story? Our brain wants to know what happens next. But, more than that, we get involved with the narration — we are transported into the character’s world. We feel empathy and give to charity or cry or feel a lot better.

Little wonder then that storytelling is universal. There is not a culture in the world that does not tell their children stories. There is not a place on earth where storytelling is not taking place even now: in advertising, in charity appeals, in the rectangular screen in the lounge that we sit and stare at all day long, sometimes even during meals. Those Hari Raya/Chinese New Year/Deepavali commercials are stories that appeal and change us a little, that is why they are so popular.

In a previous column I wrote about how you could change your stance, from harsh criticism to the gentle art of storytelling to impart a message. Not satisfied with the performance of an employee? Tell him a story of how you yourself struggled as he is now to overcome difficulties, and then you did this or that and then, voila! it worked. How about you giving it a try?

People do not like to be criticised to start with but they all love to hear about how others overcome their travails. Film adventures are mostly this: heroic struggles from adversities to triumph. We pay the money and grip our seats as our hero triumphs over adversities. Paul Zak, who is director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University says that the most successful TED talks are mostly about this struggle.

Zak also discovered in his research that stories change us chemically. People who have empathy with the characters they hear or read about release the neurochemical oxytocin in their body. It is probably the stress that does it, probably the intense emotion, but oxytocin produces empathy. We are, in other words, transported into the story.

It is the oxytocin that makes you susceptible to social cues. You give more to charity or feel better disposed towards other people or even yourself. Bibliotherapy is another subject that I have touched on many times here. Reading opens doors to other people and, ultimately, yourself. A child who feels isolated can seek the company of characters in a novel — but no, this is not fantasy living or escapism — this is a way of seeking others who you can empathise with. Children seek solace in the plight of other characters who are similar to them. Ah, so and so in this book was despised by friends because she was different from them, but she overcame that and excelled in what she turned to.
That ‘just like me’ feeling is a comforter.

For writers it is useful to know that character-driven stories draw more interest and empathy than general narratives that do not highlight the feeling of the individual. A panoramic view of devastation after an earthquake may not elicit as much sympathy as from the camera that focuses on an individual, a little boy, say, who has lost his father and carries his morning basket door to door, singing in the shrill voice of the child, “Kuih! Kuih!” His mother’s work, the little child’s effort to make ends meet for the family.

The late singer-entertainer Max Bygraves used to begin his television shows with the phrase, “I want to tell you a story.” He wasn’t much of a singer but he was popular by the charm that he put across in his shows. A speaker can draw attention in an uninterested crowd by beginning with a story. A story makes you sit up and hear, crane your neck to see what happens next. This is why people slow down when an accident has just happened on the motorway. Who, what, when, why. “Move along!” says the policeman, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here!” Oh really? OK then, let me see.

Zak says that you must have tension in your story, you must hold their attention. The rewards from this will probably be worth your while. They will listen or, if
they have identified with the characters, they will release oxytocin and be better disposed towards your plea.

This is what Paul Zak, writing in the Harvard Business Review, calls ‘neural ballet’ whereby ‘a story line changes the activity of people’s brains’.

Oxytocin is a useful neurochemical in other people. It makes them better disposed towards you, more likely to give you his trust and be more disposed towards co-operative behaviours.

The writer is an NST columnist