Will you fall for the irresistible power of a storyteller? Let’s try it out!

A storyteller’s very personal story

Dead tired but full of adrenalin, my team was gathered in a crowded room, finishing the last details of our extensive video project. A project in which we had invested a zillion work hours and tons of creative energy through the past 18 months. The project that could restart my career, and change my life. Or not.

The moment of truth was only minutes away, and we were eagerly looking forward to the official premiere. Then somebody in the room suddenly exclaimed: “Hey guys, what’s that on the screen???”

This is a story about storytelling. I will be happy to tell you more about my life-changing experience and the thing on the screen later, if you want. Right now I would rather like to discuss your reactions when you first read the few lines above.

Storytelling is about emotions 
– which is all about chemistry

Social bonding and craving for rewards

If I managed to stir up a sense of emerging conflict or problem, I actually triggered a burst of dopamine in your body. And if you, even for a second or two, could relate to my sense of panic, blame it on your increased level of oxytocin. Storytelling is about emotions – which is all about chemistry
Storytelling enhances human communication, which, to a great extent, is about emotions. Which, in turn, are chemicals in your body. Dopamine in the brain plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior, and is active when we really, really crave for something, like food or love. Oxytocin has a calming effect and plays an active role in social bonding and loving. It’s all about chemistry.

A story can be told to an audience face to face, through a written text, images, video or other media. More importantly, it can be perceived in many different ways. Video comes closest to a real-life encounter in that it effectively triggers so many senses: It is more lifelike, because the audience can see you, hear you, relate to you, feel with you more intensely.

And, when people sense something more intensely, they also tend to remember you longer. This is due to the effects of dopamine, which is the key ingredient in storytelling. No dopamine, no story. So if you want your audience to remember you, be sure to increase their dopamine A LOT!

So, how do you manage that? How do you create dopamine? 

Cliffhangers, or building suspense and expectation generates dopamine

Professional moviemakers have the answer. Like, when you watch the end of your favorite series and it cuts you off at the very moment when something exciting is to be revealed … and you have to watch the next episode to find out. That feeling of longing to FIND OUT is the feeling of dopamine. In other words: cliffhangers, or building suspense and expectation generates dopamine.

The ultimate challenge

When I grew up I dreamed about a future in film and video production, maybe even in Hollywood. So after finishing high school in my native country Sweden I invested my young life’s meager savings, begged and borrowed a small fortune to study and work with film in California.

After six fantastic years I graduated and returned to Sweden, but sadly, I was pretty lost in my home country: My hard-earned training was in a foreign language, and after so many years I didn’t have much of a personal network to lean on either. And, oh yeah, I was broke and desperate for an income too.

So when I stumbled on an opportunity to work on a documentary series for the Swedish Military, far from my Hollywood dreams, I eagerly jumped at it. It was an unexpected turn of events that effectively solved my homecoming crisis and jump-started my career.

Over the following 18 months our modest five-man film crew was assigned to create 16 episodes, 10-20 minutes each, to be published on YouTube. Now, maintaining the active interest of young people for fully 20 minutes – even once –in the highly competitive youtube environment is challenging, to say the least.

And… through 16 episodes? That would certainly call for a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, and then the effective rebuilding of expectations at the very beginning, like the first 60 second of the next one.

But the ultimate challenge was that we were expected to attract young people that had never even considered elite military training. The good news was that we were given a great measure of creative freedom, unusual in the industry and even more so in the armed forces.

Dramatically different approach

To make a 16 months long story short we developed a concept where, unlike any previous documentary for the Swedish armed forces, we did NOT feature any anonymous battle-hardened soldiers in action. Instead we focused on the personal journey that a fresh-off-the-boat recruit makes from beginner to professional soldier – their hopes, fears and everyday challenges.

This filled the audience with oxytocin, so they more easily could relate to the characters and their story. Because when the audience start caring about the characters, they will watch the rest of the story. And dopamine! Yes, we spent a full minute on the opening of each episode building suspense and always ended with a cliffhanger.

In other words, our approach was dramatically different than anything that had been produced for the Swedish armed forces before. Now, one year later,  we know that our documentary series turned out to be, by far (with all episodes combined reaching millions of views), their most viewed youtube hit.

You know that moment when you realize that you screwed up, big time”

But back then, in that cramped editing room… minutes before launch… faced by an emerging catastrophe… we only saw that unexpected, unwanted thing on the screen. At first I did not even understand what it was.

But when I did… Shit!!! You know that moment when you realize that you screwed up, big time? I can vividly remember everyone in the room glaring at me with an intensity I had never felt before. Do you want to know what it was? Simply email adam@davidjpphillips.com, and I’ll tell you all about it! 

Adam Stumle, Storytelling Consultant
David JP Phillips School of Communication
“Advising you on how to craft stories that moves people”