The science of storytelling: how to go from a chart to a captivating story

More than 3,000 years ago, the power of storytelling brought together the local tribes to rise against the conquerors’ rule. And one of the world’s most influential civilizations was born.

The Grecian Dark Ages was the period when Dorians invaded and conquered the people who lived scattered across the Greek peninsula. The local tribes had no common language and relied on stone tools and weapons. Defending themselves against the war power of Dorians who were wielding metal weapons was simply impossible. When they swooped down to the peninsula, the Dorians had no trouble taking over.

But one thing they couldn’t control under their rule was the people known as storytellers.


Image credit: Becris

Storytellers earned a living by traveling from village to village and spinning curious tales in the Greek language. Eager to listen to these inspiring fables, legends, and myths, the local tribespeople quickly learned the Greek language and spread these stories further to their family and friends. Soon, the ancient Greeks had a common language.

Eventually, the tribes united, became stronger and pushed out the invaders, giving rise to one of the world’s most important civilizations.

And that is the power of storytelling.

The brain on story: the addictive chemical reaction

Scientists now argue that humans invented language to swap stories and local gossip. Storytelling is part of who we are and how our brain functions.

When we hear stories, a pretty remarkable chemical reaction happens in the brain. Scientists discovered that certain hormones get released into the bloodstream in response to hearing a captivating story: dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, and other.

How they affect our brain function is incredible.

  • High levels of dopamine significantly improve our motivation, focus and memory.

  • Neurochemical oxytocin that the body releases in response to a story helps us feel empathy. With increased levels of oxytocin in the system, we become more generous, trusting and open to bonding. We become more human.

  • Endorphins are released into the bloodstream when we laugh. When that happens, people become more creative, relaxed and therefore, more focused.

The modern storyteller is nowhere close to the image of an old bearded man sitting by a fireplace that our brain jumps to when we hear the word storytelling.

Every one of us engages in storytelling on a daily basis, only some of us do it better than others.


Image credit: Csaba Gyulai

When it comes to telling stories in a business environment, understanding what levers to pull and which hormones to induce (as well as how to do it) can be the difference between a relaxed, engaged audience and a room of blank stares.

Researchers now suggest starting every important meeting from a character-driven story with emotional content to achieve a better understanding of key points and enable better recall of these points even weeks later.

Storytelling with data: how to turn a chart into a story

Many of us have been in those horribly boring ‘spreadsheet’ meetings.

Although numbers give arguments more weight, provide validity and credibility, storytelling with data requires careful planning.

You wouldn’t expect actors to improvise a play on the stage and get the message across perfectly, so why do we tolerate spreadsheet meetings and data dumping on employees and expect game-changing revelations?

If you want your business intelligence efforts to have true persuasive powers and deliver high-stake results, such as getting project approvals, strategic buy-in and budget allocations, your numbers must come packaged in a compelling story.


Image credit: Ani

Numbers + images + story = a brain candy

You could hardly construct a powerful business narrative without data these days.

The information overload is at an all-time high and businesses struggle to separate signal from noise. Structured, clean visualisations can help us derive meaning from data when numbers alone simply don’t cut it anymore.

Combining the trio of data, images and storytelling is a surefire way to convey complex information in a way that the brain loves and remembers for longer.

With the numbers guiding us to a certain conclusion, the imagery tapping into the memory areas of the brain and the story inducing a whole range of performance-improving hormones, data visualisations become the ultimate brain candy.


EXAMPLE: Using data shared by a recruitment agency, we've built an interactive Venn diagram to visualise the skillset of the candidate pool. In just a few clicks, you can get a general overview of all the skills and an accurate idea of which skills are plentiful and which are rarer, making those candidates more "sellable". The interactivity factor is what makes the Vizlib Venn diagram even better -- it gives users the ability to interact with data and navigate the chart for deeper insights.

Final thoughts: stories run the world

People rarely remember statistics, but tell them a good story and it sticks with them for months if not years.

With the rapidly increasing amount of data and shortening attention spans, storytelling with data is becoming the go-to communication tool in all fields and industries.

Whether it’s telling stories within an organisation to keep the team engaged and motivated or using compelling narratives to close new clients, the power of storytelling is your best chance at capturing people’s hearts by first capturing their brains.