The Science of Storytelling: Why Your Brain Loves Stories

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 24, 2015 – 5:02 am

For years, we’ve been advising our presentation training clients to incorporate storytelling into their presentations, often during the opening. We’ve consistently observed how stories captivate an audience and lead to the most memorable moments of an entire speech.

Frankly, it doesn’t take an expert to spot that. Everyone sitting in the audience sees the same thing. 

Recent research adds scientific heft to those observations. Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, studied a neurochemical called Oxytocin, which he describes as “a key ‘it’s safe to approach others signal’ in the brain.” According to a paper called “Oxytocin: The Great Facilitator of Life,” the hormone also plays a role in social attachment, maternal behavior, and orgasm (although we don’t recommend seeking that result during your presentations).

orator in public

For an article in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Zak writes that “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.”

And, critically, he writes, “The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

Given the importance of oxytocin to achieving your goals, perhaps we should stop telling our trainees to “tell stories” and advise them instead to “produce more oxytocin for the audience.”

Excited Speaker

Dr. Zak offers a few specific recommendations to help speakers sharpen their storytelling:

“We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.

These findings on the neurobiology of storytelling are relevant to business settings. For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.”

He recommends focusing your storytelling on human aspects, not the more procedural ones:

“We know that people are substantially more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services).  Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories – for example, by describing the pitiable situations of actual, named customers and how their problems were solved by your efforts.”

We’ve always known that stories are critical to speaking success. Now we have a new scientific language available to us to explain why.

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When Public Speakers Should Be Stubborn And Fight

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 22, 2015 – 3:02 am

Hundreds of audio/visual technicians have helped me set up our media and presentation training sessions over the past decade. These professionals have bailed me out of more than a few jams, and I value their knowledge and expertise.


I’ve consistently found that many A/V techs have a different view of what constitutes an “ideal” set up than I do. Oftentimes, they’ll set up the room in a manner that takes full advantage of the technology—but that isn’t conducive to student learning and public speaking.

As an example, a tech recently set up a room to look like the image below. But imagine one more empty table placed directly between the table with chairs and the screen, separating the speaker from the trainees by an extra few feet.

Contemporary conference room

I was dismayed when I found that set up in the room (despite making a specific A/V request in advance), because I knew it wouldn’t work well for a full day of training.

Plus, I prefer speaking from the short end of the table, where I can take in the full room at a glance, instead of from the middle of the long side of the table, which forces me to constantly rotate back and forth.

I spoke to the tech and told him I’d like to try a different set up. He told me that his set up was the one most presenters used in that room. (I’ve heard that line many times—but given that many presenters aren’t all that great, that argument doesn’t warrant any merit.) He then tried to explain that the cords wouldn’t reach long enough with my preferred option. (Fortunately, I’ve learned just enough about technology to offer a solution he hadn’t considered.)

In the end, we made a few changes that made the room look more like the photo below.


As another example, I recently walked into a training room and saw the room set with chairs like this:  

Rows of chairs

My trainees were adults, not seventh graders, and I didn’t want them to sit in grade school chairs for eight hours. We reconfigured the room with conference-style tables that fostered better collaboration and discussion.

As much as possible, it is your obligation as a speaker to create a speaking environment conducive to learning and participating.

To reduce the chances of something going wrong, you should speak to the A/V staff prior to the speaking day—but if you see something on the event day that you don’t like in the room, politely insist that the room be set the way you want it. 

Good technicians are crucial allies—but their “best practices” and yours as a speaker may not align. You are the person in the front of the room, not them, so don’t simply defer to their expertise. Listen to their ideas and consider them—but don’t automatically yield to them.

Fight for what you want. Actually, that’s not exactly right. Fight not for what you want, but for what the audience needs to optimize learning.

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Five Body Language Lessons From Successful TED Talks

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 18, 2015 – 12:02 am

What makes a TED Talk go viral? The TED Blog recently asked that question and used a research-based study to answer it. According to TED:

“Over the last year, a human behavior consultancy called Science of People set out to answer this question. To do so, says founder Vanessa Van Edwards, they polled 760 volunteers, asking them to rate hundreds of hours of TED Talks, looking for specific nonverbal and body language patterns.”

Temple Grandin delivering a well-reviewed TED Talk

Temple Grandin delivering a well-reviewed TED Talk


Van Edwards’ research found five specific patterns:

1. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Van Edwards found that people rated speakers comparably on charisma, credibility and intelligence whether they watched talks with sound — or on mute.

2. “Jazz hands rock.” Van Edwards noted a correlation between the number of hand gestures a speaker makes in a talk and the number of views the talk receives.

3. “Scripts kill your charisma.” Van Edwards found that speakers who offered more vocal variety showed better ratings on charisma and credibility. What’s especially interesting: people rated speakers who clearly ad libbed in their talks higher than those who stayed on script.

4. “Smiling makes you look smarter.” Van Edwards found that the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher their perceived intelligence ratings.

5. “You have seven seconds.” Van Edwards found that first impressions matter a lot, and that people had largely formed their opinion about a speaker based on the first several seconds.

The TED Blog features a fascinating interview with Van Edwards, and I encourage you to visit their site to read the whole thing.

TED Talks

One of the most interesting parts of the interview is that Van Edwards’ research confirms some of the existing research on ‘thin slices.’ Regarding the speed with which people form first impressions, she says:

“We took the same videos, we [edited them down to] the first seven seconds, and had people watch. We gave these viewers the exact same questions as people who had watched the entire talk. And we found that the ratings overall — who people liked overall and who they didn’t like — matched, whether they’d watched the first seven seconds or the full talk.”

For inspiration, here are two of the TED Talks Van Edwards singled out as viewer favorites.

Temple Grandin


Jamie Oliver

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The Bathroom Microphone Claims Another Victim

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 14, 2015 – 5:54 am

In a memorable scene from the 1988 comedy The Naked Gun, Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) forgets to remove his lapel microphone before using the restroom.

Life has been imitating art a lot lately. Earlier this month, a Georgetown, Texas council member forgot to remove or turn off his lapel microphone before taking a bathroom break. As the council meeting proceeded, the sounds of his…well, this one is pretty self-explanatory.

Georgetown Mayor Pro Tem Rachael Jonrowe tried to trudge on, but the sounds were simply too much for her to take. Who can blame her for breaking into laughter at the real-life “Drebin moment?”

Of course, this is no longer known solely as a Drebin moment. Many people now think of the “caught with a bathroom microphone moment” as a Durst moment, named after murder suspect Robert Durst. During the last scene of this year’s HBO documentary series about him, “The Jinx,” Durst appeared to have confessed to murder while still wearing his microphone in the bathroom.

There are many more examples. One of the more memorable is from 2006, when CNN anchor Kyra Phillips went to the bathroom with her microphone still attached—and slammed her sister-in-law as a “control freak” during a live address by President Bush.

It’s easy for this mistake to occur. Audio-visual technicians at conferences often wire up presenters several minutes before their speeches begin. If the speaker decides to make a final stop to the restroom before the speech, the microphone remains attached.

After a while, many speakers forget about the microphone altogether. Like their wallets or earrings, the microphone may be on their person—but they’re no longer aware of it.

wireless microphone lavalier

As a general practice, I always shut off the microphone until I’m ready to speak and kill it as soon as I’m finished. That way, if I forget it’s on me, it’ll at least be switched onto the off position. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had a few close calls, which reinforces just how easy it is for this humiliating moment to occur.

Perhaps one way to solve this problem is to help your fellow speakers. If you’re an audience member and see a wired-up speaker heading for the hallway, perhaps you could gently ask them if their microphone is off. If it’s not, you’ve just made yourself a new best friend.

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How To Prepare For A Ted Talk | Public Speaking Tips

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 12, 2015 – 12:02 am

Crisis management professional and friend of the blog Melissa Agnes recently delivered her first TEDx Talk.

Her talk, “The Secret to Successful Crisis Management in the 21st Century,” made the case that being proactive during a crisis isn’t enough—but that companies need to be thinking proactively during their day-to-day business operations.

“Crisis management today, in large part, needs to be instinctive rather than solely reactionary,” Melissa says. “This real-time news cycle makes it increasingly difficult for you to get ahead of the story before the story is already ahead of you.”

Therefore, she argues, “Successful crisis management depends on your team’s ability to manage these real-time challenges that this digital landscape presents to us in a crisis while simultaneously actually managing the actual crisis in real time.”

TED Talks (or TEDx Talks, which are independent) are some of the most high-profile talks a professional can ever give. A great TED Talk can catapult an unknown to instant fame, with all of the perks that accompany it: bestselling books, consulting and speaking fees that reach well into the five figures, and widespread industry recognition.

Not all TED or TEDx Talks accomplish that for every speaker. But even if it doesn’t, the mere fact that a speaker delivered such a talk—and survived the test—boosts their professional bona fides. In Melissa’s case, it’s easy to believe that future potential clients coming across her speech during an online search will be impressed by her accomplishment (not to mention her smart advice).

With so much at stake, I was particularly interested in how Melissa prepared for her talk. She generously shared her approach, which strikes me as good advice for anyone preparing for a TED or TEDx Talk.

Melissa Agnes TEDx

Melissa’s Three-Step Approach to Preparing a TED Talk

“For a TED or TEDx Talk, you’re given 18 minutes to discuss ‘an idea worth sharing.’ These 18 minutes are meant to be motivating, inspiring and, hopefully, aspirational for the audience. With only 18 minutes available to you, every second needs to count. Every word, every message needs to be thought out, timed and impactful.

I took a solid three months to prepare for my TEDx talk.


The first of these three months was dedicated to research. In this time, I read three amazing books on the subject and I watched the 20+ most viewed TED talks repeatedly, all with the goal of inspiring myself and learning everything I could about the structure of a great TED talk.


The second month was spent refining my message and developing my speech. To do this, I outlined the stories I wanted to share, the actionable and (hopefully) inspiring message I wanted to leave my audience with and the overall structure of my speech. But a great speech cannot simply be written and delivered. It needs to be rehearsed and tested. For this, I looked to my trusted friends and colleagues for their honest and critical feedback.

For each version of my speech, I would record myself delivering it and send the recording to friends and colleagues that I trust and admire. With every piece of feedback that I received, the speech got better, more refined and more impactful. Quite frankly, the speech wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without their generous help.


With one month left before I was to take the TEDx stage, I dedicated myself to rehearsal. I set time aside to rehearse my speech 3 to 4 times per day, sometimes recording myself and always timing myself to make sure I was able to deliver my message in the allotted 18 minutes.”

Thanks for sharing your approach, Melissa, and congratulations on a terrific presentation.

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President Obama Gets “Schooled” By A Sixth Grader

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 4, 2015 – 2:12 am

Last Thursday, President Obama was interviewed at the Anacostia Library in Washington, D.C. for a “Virtual Field Trip” event that was broadcast into classrooms around the world.

His interviewer was sixth-grade student Osman Yaya. At one point, Osman asked the president to define “writer’s block” and offer suggestions to help students get past it.

President Obama took 3 minutes and 18 seconds to answer the question. During that time, he solicited some input from the students in the room—but for the most part, he held the floor and delivered an unnecessarily long and boring response.

Most interviewers—particularly those still in grade school—wouldn’t have the audacity to shut the President down. Most interviewers, however, are not Osman Yaya.

(The full exchange is here, and begins at 24:38.)

After the more than three-minute presidential filibuster, Yaya finally interjected and told the President, “I think we’ve sort of covered everything about that question.” That light moment wasn’t a big deal, and Mr. Obama handled it with humor. But it got me thinking about executives and other people in power.

It strikes me that just because elected representatives, CEOs, celebrities, and other executives are powerful people, many audiences will listen attentively—or at least politely— to what they have to say. And that can give powerful people a distorted view of their own speaking skills.

In other words, there are two reasons people might listen to a powerful person’s presentation:

  1. 1. Because they’re interested in what the powerful speaker has to say; or
  2. 2. Because they recognize that the powerful person is speaking mere feet from them, and that a lack of attentiveness might be considered impolite (at best) or could noticed by the powerful person and have repercussions (at worst).

Osman Yaya President Obama

I suspect that many powerful people have had different combinations of groups one and two present during different speeches. President Obama, for example, can be an electrifying orator at moments, so it’s not hard to believe that many people in his audiences are in the former camp. But he can also be dreadfully boring—as he was in this exchange—and in this case, I suspect the audience was shifting into the second camp.

The problem for many executives is that it’s sometimes challenging to tell the difference between genuine interest and polite interest. So I’ll leave the executives reading this post with this question: Do you know which camp your audiences are in?

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The Words Of Apology That Undermine Your Presentations

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 16, 2015 – 5:02 am

My wife and I recently had plans to leave our house earlier than usual for a Sunday morning. As I went upstairs to shower, I turned back toward her and said, “Let’s try to aim to leave around 7:30.”

As soon as I said that, I knew there would be no chance of us leaving at 7:30. I had heard my own words, which packed three hedge words into a single short sentence:

“Let’s TRY to AIM to leave AROUND 7:30.”

That choice of words suggested to me that I wasn’t particularly committed to my own idea (we ended up leaving closer to 7:50). And it made me think about all of the times I hear speakers use hedge words—or their kissing cousin, words of apology—which are the focus of this post.

Speaker Saying Just

I often hear speakers using these types of phrases:

“I’m just going to take a minute to tell you about….”

“Real quickly, I’ll explain why…”

“”I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before, but…”

Like the phrase I used when speaking to my wife, each of those phrases signal something to an audience.

The first two phrases send a message of insecurity, that the speaker doesn’t feel confident enough in his or her content or position to simply say what they had planned to. As I say to our clients, it’s going to take you the same amount of time to share that content whether you pre-apologize for it or not—so why pre-apologize? Doing so only makes you look insecure and unnecessarily threatens your credibility. 

The third sentence sends a message of either poor planning or poor framing. Instead of apologizing and barreling through the content anyway, the speaker could have either looked for a new way to share the same information or at least sold the repeated content as an asset (“For those of you who have heard this before, this will serve as a useful refresher.”).

In her post about the word “just” published last spring by PR Daily, leadership strategist Ellen Petry Leanse writes that she sees more women using these “permission” words than men. I’ve made the same observation in my own workshops. There are all sorts of cultural reasons for why that may be the case, but it can undermine an otherwise confident message nonetheless.

As Leanse says:

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that [just] was a “child” word…As such, it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control.”

Using these words or phrases of apology are not going to doom your next presentation. But it’s a good idea to remain aware of the potential message they send and work to remove them from your talks.

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Why Being Witty Can Kill Your Presentations

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 25, 2015 – 4:59 am

In the mid-1990s, my cousin invited me to join her for a bar crawl in Washington, DC. At some point during the day, we swung by an apartment in Dupont Circle to pick up one of her friends.

When we entered her friend’s basement apartment, I noticed a flier on a coffee table supporting Joe Biden’s 1996 Senate reelection campaign. Biden, you may remember, dropped out of the presidential race in 1988 after being accused of plagiarizing a speech—so I turned to my cousin and jokingly said, “I wonder if he plagiarized that flier?”

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she said, a look of horror crossing her face. “This is his son’s apartment!”

Joe Biden 1988

It’s been many years, so I don’t know which Biden son lived there (we were there to pick up one of his roommates). I also don’t know if he ever heard the comment—to the best of my memory, I never saw him, so I don’t even know if he was home at the time.

But that moment, which my cousin still needles me about, is etched in my memory and serves as a regular caution for me about the dangers of ad libbing.

Still, I like topical quips—so that moment aside, I remain prone to occasionally making a comment about someone in the news. Last week, for example, I delivered a presentation to a group of 40 communications professionals in Washington. As I was setting up a story, I was on the cusp of saying something along the lines of, “This is a real story, not a Brian Williams one.”

Brian Williams

I hit the brakes right before saying it and held myself back. I realized that I had no idea who was in that audience. For all I knew, one of Brian Williams’s relatives, former colleagues, or friends could have been in the audience—and if that was the case, my witty aside could have made that person (and everyone else in the room aware of that relationship) uncomfortable.

Certainly, I could have referenced the Williams case if it was in context and if the analysis served a relevant point. But just for the sake of demonstrating my wit? It wasn’t worth the risk.

I often talk about the need to remain spontaneous and “in the moment” during presentations. But there are a lot of other, less risky ways to exhibit humor. Therefore, unless I know my audience well, I’m going to try hard to leave the irrelevant quips behind.

Note: The Biden story above is true to the best of my and my cousin’s recollection—we both remember that incident similarly. I tried to corroborate it by searching for where the Biden sons lived in 1996, but was unable to find verifying information.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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