Why I’m Getting Tired of All These Stories

That clever little story may not be as engaging as you think it is.

When neuroscientist Paul Zak discovered the power of a compelling story to stimulate the production of oxytocin in the same manner as “real life” interactions, he unleashed a new best practice for leaders, speakers, trainers, teachers and everyone else. It is nearly impossible to miss his influence at professional conferences and YouTube sales videos, where almost every speaker begins the presentation with a story that is meant to draw us to their topic and create a deep connection with the audience.

In addition, a disproportionately large number of the sessions at the conferences I’m attending are dedicated to telling us how to use stories to engage, motivate and change behavior. I don’t disagree with the science behind this practice. Stories have a powerful effect on the brain. Through the stimulation of oxytocin, they have the power to immerse us in another person’s experience, to the point that our brain cannot tell the difference between this imagined experience and one that has happened to us directly. For learning professionals, this discovery has powerful implications – if it is done well.

But something is really troubling me. As I am subjected to most of these stories, I’m actually becoming disengaged. I see what the speaker is trying to do, but I really don’t care. I just want them to get to the point and give me the content I came for. In fact, I’d say the effect is so negative at times that, as soon as the speaker begins, my now-familiar neural pathway kicks in with, “Oh boy, here we go again. Might as well tune out for the next 5-10 minutes.” Am I the only one who is getting tired of all these stories?

I believe in the power of science to change the way we see and interact with the world; as learning professionals, we have an obligation to apply the scientific method to make our learning experiences as effective, compelling and memorable as possible. So, when I noticed my own reaction to a practice that is supposed to be based on science, I had to ask myself, “What is going on here?” Here are a couple of hypotheses I’ve developed. I’m calling on all my fellow scholar-practitioners to weigh in and help me figure this out.

Do we need some help developing more compelling stories?

Let’s face it; all stories are not equally compelling. I might just be the worst “scrooge” on the planet, but I seem to have a hard time getting interested in these stories. I wonder if paying a little more attention to the process of crafting a story might help. Just because it’s a story about you doesn’t mean that I’m going to care about it. If you’re going to use stories as learning strategy, make sure you are having the desired effect. It might be worth checking with a trusted friend who will tell you the truth about how your stories resonates (or not) with them.

Are we over-simplifying the science?

It’s so easy to get caught up in the latest “shiny thing” promising to enhance learning and performance these days. Between the popular press, who are legitimately trying to summarize the neurosciences for mass consumption, and businesses who are simply cashing in on a hot topic, it’s easy for concepts like story-telling to be over-simplified. I suspect that many of these presenters are sincerely trying to apply something they’ve read in a blog many times removed from Zak’s original work. After all, reading peer-reviewed scientific journals can be intimidating, and many of them are hidden behind paywalls that make our jobs even harder. (I’ll save that rant for another day.) Here’s a great summary of Zak’s work, with references, in Cerebrum magazine, published by The Dana Foundation for neuroscience. These are two of my favorite resources, because they:

  • Explain things in plain English
  • Draw clear connections between research and application
  • Provide references to the source documents for more information.

Another great place to check out is Backyard Brains. Co-founded by neuroscientist Greg Gage, this group makes hands-on experiments that are easy enough for kids (or training professionals) to do.

Of course, let’s not forget all the resources you have as a member of ATD. If you think of your membership as an app you’ve “installed” on your professional life, research suggests that you’re probably only using four or five of the dozens of benefits available to you.

We need to get this right

When you invest a little time in understanding what makes that “shiny thing” so shiny, you often come away with a deeper understanding of how to apply the information to enhance learning and performance. Based on what I’ve been experiencing from speakers and presenters, I’d say a few more of us need to make this investment more often. After all, we’re all science workers – so let’s get the science right – together.

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