In this recorded video of Paul Zak‘s live speech from the Future of Storytelling 2012 on the biological reasons people that cause people to give, Zak explains how oxytocin and cortisol evoke powerful responses. Zak is a pioneer in the neuroeconomic field and proving that love is good for business. Future of Storytelling (FoST) is a summit that brings together top executives, creative talent, and technologists to explore how storytelling is changing in the digital age.
Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of StoryTelling
By Sherrie Campbell| Entrepreneur | 6/18/15
The emotionally charged story recounted at the beginning Dr. Paul Zak’s film—of a terminally ill two-year-old named Ben and his father—offers a simple yet remarkable case study in how the human brain responds to effective storytelling. As part of his study, Dr. Zak, a founding pioneer in the emerging field of neuroeconomics, closely monitored the neural activity of hundreds of people who viewed Ben’s story. What he discovered is that even the simplest narrative, if it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag, can evoke powerful empathic responses associated with specific neurochemicals, namely cortisol and oxytocin. Those brain responses, in turn, can translate readily into concrete action—in the case of Dr. Zak’s study subjects, generous donations to charity and even monetary gifts to fellow participants.
Nonprofit Storytelling for Fundraising: An Art Broken Down to A Science
Paul Zak’s biological research as to why we feel this way and how it effects our human desire to do good after hearing it is intriguing. The story of Ben and his father definitely elicits an emotionally heart-breaking (distress) and empathetic response. However, people couldn’t explain why they reacted the way they did in their own words, so laboratory testing and a controlled experiment were conducted. The results? Phenomenal.
Charitable Actions Rely on Two Chemical Reactions
- Cortisol focuses our attention on something important (distress)
- Oxytocin is responsible for care, connection and empathy
For nonprofit storytelling, individuals who produce cortisol and oxytocin are more likely to donate money to charity. And the amount of oxytocin produced directly correlates to how much money they will give.
Changing Donor Behavior By Changing Brain Chemistry: Freytag’s Arc
As social creatures, humans seek connection and understanding of others. Stories are powerful because they transport us into other peoples’ world, change the way our brains work and change our brain’s chemistry. Build your story/call-to-action in a way that positively engages supporters and creates a change in how they think and react.
Gustav Freytag’s dramatic arc structure is the skeleton of a well-built story.
- Exposition – Captures attention with a summary of important background information. Outline the problem your cause is addressing and why you need support.
- Rising Action – Series of related incidents leading up to the most intriguing point of interest. Include specific testimonials, compelling visuals, before & after stories, attempts to resolve the problem, etc. Generalized and mass need makes people feel helpless, which reduces their likeliness to pay attention, connect and donate.
- Climax – Most intense or suspense-filled point or the resolution of something. People give because they want to do something good, so assure that good things will happen due to their donations. Create a sense of urgency by communicating what will happen without their crucial support.
- Falling Action – Resolves the climax and softens the arc before the end of the story. This is the time to show and instruct supporters how to make a difference. Key people should lead by example during a live call-to-action and make a donation while showing the audience how to make a donation from a mobile device.
- Denouemont – Ties the strands of the plot together and makes the chain of events clear. You could reference the real-time thermometer at this point to point out what the giving results mean in tangible term and relate it back to the information in the exposition or rising action.
An effective “ask” starts with a story that supporters can connect with that moves them to immediately donate, the tangible value their donation will bring, and clear giving instructions that leads to an intuitive mobile-responsive donor experience.