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The Power Of Story To Impact Behavior Change-workshop handout

The ability to craft and deliver a story is a key professional skill that is even more
Workshop  and Hand-Out by
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
valuable in the digital world, in which there are constant competing demands on peoples' attention. According to neuroscientist Paul Zak, who conducts research into what is happening in the brain when impacted by story, the ability to command and sustain attention is the core challenge to all of us who seek to deliver information and impact others in positive ways. "Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource," he writes in "How Stories Change The Brain" on UC-Berkeley's Greater Good website. "Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat. Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders."

The Scientific American article "It Is In Our Nature To Need Stories" describes the social bonding function of story that is linked to our survival. "Nature shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot. We are adapted to physiologically interact with stories. They are a key way in which our ruly culture configures our nature."  And story is the most effective way to deliver ideas because our brains are story-making organisms. “Science has proven that one of the major ways the brain operates is by taking facts and organizing them into a story," writes Forbes Women's Media writer Nancy F. Clark in “How To Develop Resilience And Make Yourself The Hero Of Your Own Story” on "Once created, that story (a person’s perception of reality) then allows that person to sort reality to conform to it. Consequently, the first building block of a person’s resilience is crafting a meaningful story and then supporting it with facts." 

There is a distinct difference between a story and an anecdote. Both deal with real events and experiences, but an anecdote is simply a recounting of something that happened. A story has structure. It has a beginning, middle and end. A story expands on an anecdote and fleshes it out with meaning. The most important difference is that a story describes some kind of emotional journey, describing an emotional or psychological shift. 


What powers stories are emotions.
Emotions are engaged through specific moments, sensory details and the storyteller's ability to give meaning to them. 
  • Stories describe tension through identifying obstacles to the main character's desire or circumstance that must be dealt with. A story describes the obstacles, both internal (beliefs, ideas, misperceptions) and external that bring on a struggle, a well as what the storyteller feels as he/she goes through an experience. 
  • Emotional stakes
  • A clear narrative with a beginning, middle and end
  • Pain and struggle: The way obstacles, adversity and struggle are faced reveal things about the main character and in the best stories, reveal things to the main character. When we identify with the main character's situation and inner life, we take an emotional journey with them and through this journey make discoveries. 
  • Reflection
Research shows that stories impact behavior when they engage the sensory, emotional, and imaginative brain functions in a coherent narrative. Learning to communicate through story strengthens our impact in essential ways. The brief video below was made by Paul Zak to describe the importance of structure to strengthen a story's impact on the listener.

  The 5-beat story structure (with an example using The Wizard Of Oz)

The Set-up – What is the main character’s “deal?” What is the context of the moment we are entering into? Example: Dorothy lives with her aunt and uncle, so she has lost her parents somehow. Her dog is her most beloved friend. She is lonely and searching for a place she feels connected. A local mean woman accuses her dog of biting her and takes the dog. Dorothy becomes hysterical, loses hope and runs away from home. 

The Inciting Incident – something happens to shake things up.  Example: A tornado hits and takes her to another world where nothing is familiar and she has no idea how to get back to Kansas. Her house lands on a witch and ignites the rage of another witch, her sister. 

The Rising Action – what occurs or actions taken as a result of the inciting incident. Dorothy is told by the locals that the only way for her to get home is to talk to the wizard who lives in a place called Oz. The witch sets out to destroy Dorothy as she sets out on her journey to find Oz. On the way she makes 3 friends who all have a need for something important from the wizard. The witch pursues them all. They do reach the land of Oz and go to put their need for help to the wizard.

The Climax – The height of the emotional arc. The moment of truth, when things reach their greatest intensity and a shift happens. The wizard is terrifying and terrible. He sends them out on an impossible mission, to kill the witch. They are too afraid to say no and have no other options. They find their way to the witch's castle. Dorothy kills the witch by throwing water on her when the witch threatens one of her companions. Unexpectedly, she is hailed as a hero by all the soldiers who work for her. She returns to the wizard with proof of her success and hope that now he will help them all. 

The Resolution or Transformation – what occurs as a result of the climax. The wizard is revealed to be a fraud. Dorothy is revealed to already possess all the power and peace she is seeking outside herself. Her companions are satisfied that they have what they need as well. In the end it turns out the whole experience is probably a dream, but she now views the people and place she lives as her true home where she actually has exactly what she was looking for. 

Another way to format story structure is:
Once upon a time (there was a 13 year old girl named Dorothy who lived on a farm in Kansas, feels very misunderstood, lonely, longing for a place she belongs)
Then one day (the "inciting incident" happens something that changes things, e.g. a tornado hits and takes her to a completely different world)
And because of that (the rising action, what the main character does in response to the inciting incident, choices made and how those choices turned out; e.g. she has killed a witch and is in grave danger...)
And because of that (the rising tension as actions are taken; she meets the scarecrow, tin man and lion along the way to the place she is told she can get help...)
Until finally (the climax, what the tension leads up to, e.g. Dorothy kills the witch and is hailed as a hero, only to discover that there is no magical wizard to reward her after all).
And after that (the resolution or transformation, e.g. Dorothy realizes what she has been looking for outside herself is already inside her).

Exercise for working with sensory details to bring emotions to life:

Think of an item that is in your office or familiar, safe space, that is important to you. Focus on a very specific item, e.g. a vase, a lamp, a piece of furniture. "Become" this item and speak or write as you are this item, describing "yourself" in detail, e.g. "I am a thick, black cylinder, I weigh 2 lbs and could be used as weapon. But my main and most important function is through the bulb at the front of me that is powered by batteries inside me. (a big flashlight). 

In a group format this can be a game in which the group allows the descriptive details to "land" in their imagination as they try to name the item. Once the group correctly labels the item, the next step is to describe, as the item, how and why you came to have a prominent place in the person's life and consciousness. The way things look, smell, sound, and feel (their texture) engage the sensory cortex of the brain, which makes the listener experience what is being describe as it if is happening to him/her. Learning to be specific about sensory details is one of the most essential skills for effective storytelling.

Some guidelines for crafting stories that have impact:

Choose descriptive details and embed them with active imagery. The details are the scenery we want the audience to attend to, and the route we take connects them. We might start by directing attention to a specific moment in time: “Its St. Patrick’s Day, 1981, a Friday and I’m in evening rush hour traffic inching down 9th Avenue in New York City. Traffic is backed up to Connecticut, because its been raining for 3 days. And all I see in front of me are sheets and sheets of blinding rain.” (From my story on the RISK episode with the theme of “Turning Points”) Or to a state of mind: “At about 8 pm on Memorial Day I realize I haven’t spoken to anyone in 3 days. I haven’t left my house, answered my phone or even looked out a window since Friday morning. That’s what happens when I get into the flow of painting.” Or to a set of facts: “There are 15000 more gun shops in the United States than there are grocery stores. My home town in Kentucky, population 5, 450 had 5 gun shops, 12 bars and 8 churches. It was easier to create an arsenal than to buy groceries.” A fact gets into a person’s head more efficiently when embedded in a narrative.
Experiment with ordering the details in different ways. Start with a high-stakes scene and then fill in the information the audience needs to understand it. Then start again with a leading statement and reveal the details chronologically. Try different routes to the same conclusion and be ready to ditch the details that do not serve the central narrative.
Know what point or idea the story illuminates and choose the details that intensify the focus on it. Tell the story to a trusted colleague and listen to their emotional response as well as what they understand to be the take-away. Find out if there are distracting or confusing details that derail the narrative and be willing to edit them.
Enter into emotional moments rather than describe them. Suppose the story is about a life-changing phone call. If the set up portion of the story successfully establishes the stakes, this is the time to bring the audience into what its like during and after the call: “Its a regular day at the office when my supervisor says there is a call for me from an editor at Penguin Books. My heart is pounding out of my chest. I can hardly breathe, I want so much for this to be good news — I need this — but I know there is a better chance it will not be good. ‘We want to publish your book,” the woman says. And I say robotically ‘you want to publish my book?” like I’m Siri. “Yes, yes that’s right,’ the woman says. Then I feel a surge of what I can only call joy juice, just a burst of dopamine in my brain. Five years of working in the dark just got a green light and I’m busting!!”
If possible, set up a pattern within the narrative, and return to it like the chorus in a song. A recurring image or reference grounds a narrative the way a repeating melody grounds a piece of music. The brain is very responsive to this because one of its primary purposes is to seek and identify patterns. Combined with the novelty, descriptive imagery, and unexpected twists in the narrative this is an optimal positive experience for the human brain.
Some links to articles about storytelling to impact behavior

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer, and President of Lifestage, Inc which designs and implements workshops and classes for personal and professional development. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. 


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