Karen Eber: How your brain responds to stories -- and why they're crucial for leaders

Recorded atFebruary 22, 2020
Duration (min:sec)13:50
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute190.09 fast
Readability (FK)55.83 medium
SpeakerKaren Eber

Official TED page for this talk


How do the world's best leaders and visionaries earn trust? They don't just present data -- they also tell great stories. Leadership consultant Karen Eber demystifies what makes for effective storytelling and explains how anyone can harness it to create empathy and inspire action.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:13 Maria walked into the elevator at work.
200:16 She went to press the button when her phone fell out of her hand.
300:20 It bounced on the floor and --
400:25 went straight down that little opening between the elevator and the floor.
500:29 And she realized it wasn't just her phone,
600:32 it was her phone wallet that had her driver's license,
700:35 her credit card, her whole life.
800:37 She went to the front desk to talk to Ray, the security guard.
900:41 Ray was really happy to see her.
1000:43 Maria is one of the few people
1100:45 that actually stops and says hello to him each day.
1200:48 In fact, she's one of these people that knows your birthday
1300:51 and your favorite food, and your last vacation,
1400:54 not because she's weird,
1500:56 she just genuinely likes people and likes them to feel seen.
1601:00 She tells Ray what happened,
1701:02 and he said it's going to cost at least 500 dollars
1801:04 to get her phone back
1901:06 and he goes to get a quote while she goes back to her desk.
2001:10 Twenty minutes later, he calls her and he says, "Maria,
2101:15 I was looking at the inspection certificate in the elevator.
2201:18 It's actually due for its annual inspection next month.
2301:22 I'm going to go ahead and call that in today
2401:24 and we'll be able to get your phone back and it won't cost you anything."
2501:27 The same day this happened,
2601:30 I read an article about the CEO of Charles Schwab, Walter Bettinger.
2701:34 He's describing his straight-A career at university
2801:38 going in to his last exam expecting to ace it,
2901:41 when the professor gives one question:
3001:44 "What is the name of the person that cleans this room?"
3101:48 And he failed the exam.
3201:50 He had seen her, but he had never met her before.
3301:53 Her name was Dottie and he made a vow that day
3401:56 to always know the Dotties in his life
3501:59 because both Walter and Maria
3602:00 understand this power of helping people feel seen,
3702:03 especially as a leader.
3802:06 I used that story back when I worked at General Electric.
3902:10 I was responsible for shaping culture in a business of 90,000 employees
4002:15 in 150 countries.
4102:17 And I found that stories were such a great way
4202:19 to connect with people
4302:21 and have them think,
4402:23 "What would I do in this situation?
4502:25 Would I have known Dottie
4602:27 or who are the Dotties I need to know in my life?"
4702:30 I found that no matter people's gender or their generation
4802:33 or their geography in the world,
4902:35 the stories resonated and worked.
5002:38 But in my work with leaders,
5102:39 I've also found they tend to be allergic to telling stories.
5202:43 They're not sure where to find them,
5302:44 or they're not sure how to tell them,
5402:47 or they think they have to present data
5502:49 and that there's just not room to tell a story.
5602:52 And that's where I want to focus today.
5702:55 Because storytelling and data is actually not this either-or.
5802:58 It's an "and," they actually create this power ballad
5903:01 that connects you to information differently.
6003:04 To understand how,
6103:06 we have to first understand what happens neurologically
6203:08 when you're listening to a story and data.
6303:12 So as you're in a lecture or you're in a meeting,
6403:14 two small parts of your brain are activated,
6503:17 Wernicke and Broca's area.
6603:19 This is where you're processing information,
6703:21 and it's also why you tend to forget 50 percent of it
6803:24 right after you hear it.
6903:26 When you listen to a story,
7003:28 your entire brain starts to light up.
7103:32 Each of your lobes will light up
7203:34 as your senses and your emotions are engaged.
7303:37 As I talk about a phone falling and hitting the ground with a thud
7403:41 your occipital and your temporal lobes are lighting up
7503:44 as though you are actually seeing that falling phone
7603:47 and hearing it hit with a thud.
7703:50 There's this term, neural coupling,
7803:52 which says, as the listener,
7903:54 your brain will light up exactly as mine
8003:58 as the storyteller.
8104:00 It mirrors this activity
8204:01 as though you are actually experiencing these things.
8304:06 Storytelling gives you this artificial reality.
8404:09 If I talked to you about, like, walking through the snow
8504:12 and with each step,
8604:13 the snow is crunching under my shoes,
8704:16 and big, wet flakes are falling on my cheeks,
8804:20 your brains are now lighting up
8904:21 as though you are walking through the snow and experiencing these things.
9004:26 It's why you can sit in an action movie
9104:28 and not be moving,
9204:29 but your heart is racing as though you're the star on-screen
9304:32 because this neural coupling has your brain lighting up
9404:35 as though you are having that activity.
9504:39 As you listen to stories,
9604:41 you automatically gain empathy for the storyteller.
9704:44 The more empathy you experience,
9804:47 the more oxytocin is released in your brain.
9904:50 Oxytocin is the feel-good chemical
10004:52 and the more oxytocin you have,
10104:55 the more trustworthy you actually view the speaker.
10204:58 This is why storytelling is such a critical skill for a leader
10305:02 because the very act of telling a story
10405:04 makes people trust you more.
10505:07 As you begin to listen to data, some different things happen.
10605:10 There are some misconceptions to understand.
10705:13 And the first is that data doesn't change our behavior,
10805:17 emotions do.
10905:19 If data changed our behavior,
11005:21 we would all sleep eight hours and exercise and floss daily
11105:24 and drink eight glasses of water.
11205:26 But that's not how we actually decide.
11305:29 Neuroscientists have studied decision-making,
11405:32 and it starts in our amygdala.
11505:35 This is our emotional epicenter
11605:37 where we have the ability to experience emotions
11705:40 and it's here at a subconscious level where we begin to decide.
11805:44 We make choices to pursue pleasure
11905:47 or to avoid risk,
12005:48 all before we become aware of it.
12105:51 At the point we become aware,
12205:54 where it comes to the conscious level,
12305:56 we start to apply rationalization and logic,
12405:59 which is why we think we're making these rationally-based decisions,
12506:02 not realizing that they were already decided in our subconscious.
12606:07 Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist
12706:10 that started to study patients that had damage to their amygdala.
12806:14 Fully functioning in every way,
12906:16 except they could not experience emotions.
13006:20 And as a result, they could not make decisions.
13106:23 Something as simple as "do I go this way or this way"
13206:27 they were incapable of doing,
13306:29 because they could not experience emotions.
13406:32 These were people that were wildly successful
13506:35 before they had the damage to their amygdala
13606:37 and now they couldn't complete any of their projects
13706:40 and their careers took big hits,
13806:41 all because they couldn't experience emotions where we decide.
13906:47 Another data misconception.
14006:50 Data never speaks for itself.
14106:54 Our brains love to anticipate
14206:56 and as we anticipate,
14306:57 we fill in the gaps on what we're seeing or hearing
14406:59 with our own knowledge and experience
14507:02 and our own bias.
14607:03 Which means my understanding of data is going to differ from yours,
14707:07 and it's going to differ from yours,
14807:09 because we're all going to have our own interpretation
14907:12 if there isn't a way to guide us through.
15007:15 Now I'm not suggesting that data is bad and story is good.
15107:19 They both play a key role.
15207:21 And to understand how,
15307:22 you have to see what makes a great story.
15407:25 It's going to answer three questions.
15507:28 The first is:
15607:29 What is the context?
15707:31 Meaning, what's the setting, who is involved,
15807:34 why should I even care?
15907:36 What is the conflict,
16007:38 where is that moment where everything changes?
16107:42 And what is the outcome?
16207:44 Where is it different, what is the takeaway?
16307:47 A good story also has three attributes,
16407:51 the first being it is going to build and release tension.
16507:54 So because our brains love to anticipate,
16607:57 a great story builds tension by making you wonder:
16708:00 "Where is she going with this?"
16808:03 "What's happening next," right?
16908:05 A good story keeps you, keeps your attention going.
17008:09 And it releases it by sharing something unexpected
17108:12 and it does this over and over throughout the story.
17208:15 A great story also builds an idea.
17308:18 It helps you see something that you can no longer unsee,
17408:22 leaving you changed,
17508:23 because stories actually do leave you changed.
17608:27 And a great story communicates value.
17708:30 Stanford has done research on one of the best ways
17808:32 to shape organizational culture,
17908:34 and it is storytelling,
18008:36 because it's going to demonstrate what you value and encourage
18108:39 or what you don't value and what you discourage.
18208:43 As you start to write your power ballad,
18308:46 most people want to start with the data.
18408:49 They want to dig in,
18508:50 because we often have piles of data.
18608:53 But there's a common mistake we make when we do that.
18708:57 I was working with a CEO.
18808:59 She came to me to prepare for her annual company-wide meeting
18909:02 and she had 45 slides of data
19009:05 for a 45-minute presentation.
19109:08 A recipe for a boring, unmemorable talk.
19209:11 And this is what most people do,
19309:13 they come armed with all of this data
19409:15 and they try to sort their way through
19509:18 without a big picture
19609:19 and then they lose their way.
19709:22 We actually put the data aside and I asked her,
19809:25 "What's the problem you're trying to solve?
19909:27 What do you want people to think and feel different
20009:30 and what do you want people to do different at the end of this?"
20109:33 That is where you start with data and storytelling.
20209:35 You come up with this framework to guide the way through
20309:39 both the story and the data.
20409:41 In her case,
20509:42 she wants her company to be able to break into new markets,
20609:45 to remain competitive.
20709:47 She ended up telling a story about her daughter,
20809:49 who's a gymnast who's competing for a scholarship,
20909:52 and she had to learn new routines with increasing difficulty
21009:55 to be competitive.
21109:57 This is one of your choices.
21209:59 Do you tell a story about the data itself
21310:02 or do you tell a parallel story,
21410:04 where you pull out points from the story to reinforce the data?
21510:09 As you begin this ballad,
21610:11 this melody and harmony of data and storytelling come together
21710:15 in a way that will stay with you long after.
21810:19 Briana was a college adviser.
21910:24 And she was asked to present to her university leadership
22010:27 when she realized that a large population of their students with autism
22110:31 were not graduating.
22210:33 She came to me because her leaders kept saying,
22310:35 "Present the data, focus on the data,"
22410:37 but she felt like university officials already had the data.
22510:41 She was trying to figure out how to help them connect with it.
22610:44 So we worked together to help her tell the story about Michelle.
22710:49 Michelle was a straight-A student in high school
22810:51 who had these dreams of going to university.
22910:54 Michelle was also a student with autism
23010:57 who was terrified about how she would be able to navigate
23111:00 the changes of university.
23211:02 Her worst fears came true on her first phone call
23311:05 with her adviser,
23411:06 when he asked her questions like,
23511:09 "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
23611:11 and "What are your career aspirations?"
23711:14 Questions that are hard for anybody.
23811:18 But for a person with autism
23911:20 to have to respond to verbally?
24011:23 Paralyzing.
24111:25 She got off the phone, was ready to drop out,
24211:27 until her parents sat down with her
24311:29 and helped her write an email to her adviser.
24411:32 She told him that she was a student with autism,
24511:35 which was really hard for her to share
24611:37 because she felt like there was a stigma associated just by sharing that.
24711:42 She told him that she preferred to communicate in writing,
24811:44 if he could send her questions in advance,
24911:47 she would be able to send replies back to him
25011:49 before they got on the phone to have a different conversation.
25111:53 He followed her lead
25211:55 and within a few weeks,
25311:56 they found all of these things they have in common,
25411:58 like a love for Japanese anime.
25512:01 After three semesters,
25612:03 Michelle is a straight-A student thriving in the university.
25712:08 At this point, Briana starts to share some of the data
25812:11 that less than 20 percent of the students with autism
25912:14 are graduating.
26012:16 And it's not because they can't handle the coursework.
26112:19 It's because they can't figure out
26212:20 how to navigate the university,
26312:22 the very thing an adviser is supposed to be able to help you do.
26412:27 That over the course of a lifetime
26512:29 the earning potential of someone with a college degree
26612:32 over a high school degree
26712:34 is a million dollars.
26812:35 Which is a big amount.
26912:37 But for a person with autism
27012:38 that wants to be able to live independent from their family
27112:41 it's life changing.
27212:44 She closed with,
27312:45 "We say our whole passion and purpose
27412:48 is to help people be their best,
27512:50 to help them be successful.
27612:52 But we're hardly giving our best service
27712:54 by applying this one-size-fits-all approach
27812:56 and just letting people fall through the cracks.
27912:59 We can and we should do better.
28013:01 There are more Michelles out there,
28113:02 and I know because Michelle is my daughter."
28213:06 And in that moment, the jaws in the room went --
28313:10 And someone even wiped away tears,
28413:12 because she had done it,
28513:13 she had connected them to information differently,
28613:16 she helped them see something they couldn't unsee.
28713:19 Could she have done that with data alone?
28813:22 Maybe, but the things is, they already had the data.
28913:25 They didn't have a reason not to overlook the data this time.
29013:30 That is the power of storytelling and data.
29113:34 That together, they come together in this way
29213:36 to help build ideas,
29313:38 to help you see things you can't unsee.
29413:40 To help communicate what's valued
29513:42 and to help tap into that emotional way that we all decide.
29613:46 As you all move forward,
29713:48 shaping the passion and purpose of others as leaders,
29813:51 don't just use data.
29913:53 Use stories.
30013:55 And don't wait for the perfect story.
30113:57 Take your story and make it perfect.
30213:59 Thank you.
30314:00 (Applause)