Ever tried to sell, persuade or teach and noticed your audience’s eyes glazing over? Perhaps you were in the audience and the presenter had just clicked on to the fortieth slide, you know the one I mean, the one with about twelve bullet points and a triple bar graph that you can never quite understand. The presenter finishes up satisfied that he’s covered all the information and that’s exactly what he’s done – covered it – forgetting that the point is to uncover it. The most lethal bullet ever invented is called bullet point – it will kill you with boredom. As a professional speaker I have seen more than my fair share of these kinds of presentations. The company spends hundreds of thousands on an annual conference – the most important and expensive sales call of the year – and their CEO transforms into a CES, Chief Executive Soporific.


Want to wake up an audience? Drop the data overload and tell a “Living Story”. All communication is a form of story telling in that it gives an account of events but there are two very different kinds of stories. They may say the same thing but they have a vastly different impact on our brains.


Story number 1 is bland and abstract. It’s what I call a ‘dead story”. For example:


It is very important that even young people have a good medical aid to cover any hospital expenses that may arise. An illness may be unexpected and if one doesn’t have sufficient funds available, one may be faced with both medical and financial problems. Everyone should have medical aid.


Riveting stuff, huh? That’s what I call a “Dead Story” and it doesn’t activate much of the brain other than the part that processes language.


Story number 2 follows traditional story telling. It’s what I call a “Living Story.” For example:


My friend Howard was fit, active and just twenty-four years old when his doctor told him: “You’ve got cancer.” He shook his head in disbelief not realizing it was about to get worse. “We need to get you into a good private hospital now, how are you going to pay?” That’s when Howard put his head in his hands and started crying. As a young, healthy guy he’d just never seen the point of having a medical aid. Fortunately after many months of treatment he got better but to pay his medical costs he had to sell his flat. Four years later he’s still living with his parents.


Which of those two stories is more likely to motivate you to get medical aid? Well for the answer to that let’s see what happened in your brain when you read the second one. You would have had a mental image of that whole scenario – visual cortex. You would have heard Howard’s doctor say – “cancer” – auditory cortex. You would have felt some of Howard’s terror – limbic system. Finally, by giving you a character in a story to identify with your mirror neuron network was activated, this is the part of our brain that enables us to experience what others are going through as if we were going through it ourselves. Finally your hippocampus fired up as a memory was laid down in your brain.



Living stories don’t tell us what to think or do. They take us on a journey in someone else’s shoes. They give us an experience after which they allow us to draw our own conclusions. Have you noticed, lessons are much more powerful when we figure them out ourselves?


Also, the more sensory and emotional the information, the more likely we will remember and act. That’s why if you hear ten facts, you’re lucky if you remember one, where as if you hear a good story, you’re likely to remember the whole thing. What’s the best-selling book of all time? It’s called the bible and it’s a collection of stories. Our ancestors understood better than us that information is much more likely to stick when its part of a narrative. So the next time you have to persuade, sell, lead or teach try finding a story, a real-life example to illustrate your point. That way, in trying to get to the point, you won’t lose it.



Justin Cohen is an international speaker and author of four books and seven audio books, including “The Astonishing Power of Story.” For more information please go to www.justinpresents.com