To Engage Your Audience, Tell a Story


The work of government has always made for some great stories.

Take this story, for example: There was once a man who ruled an ancient city, renowned for his strength and bravery. But when his best friend died suddenly, the great ruler became heartbroken. He traveled to the ends of the earth, searching for the secret to immortality, so he might avoid the same fate. However, his search was in vain—until he returned, at last, to his great city, and realized that the walls and the civilization he built would survive long after his death.

This tale is the oldest recorded story in history: the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to the ancient Sumerians circa 2100 B.C. What is it about this story, and others like it, that make them so compelling? To answer this question, consider this story presented in an alternate format:

  • Gilgamesh was the legendary king of Uruk, an ancient Sumerian city.
  • It is reported that Gilgamesh searched in vain for the key to immortality after witnessing the death of his friend Enkidu.
  • The durable walls of Uruk symbolize immortality.

Bullet points are great at conveying information. But they do not evoke emotions. They do not activate empathy or suspense in our brains. In short, they do not tell a story.

If your goal is to present information in an unbiased, stick-to-the-facts sort of way, bullet points may work just fine. But if you want your audience to become engaged in your work and take action? Consider the humble story as your communication model. It is not hard to make the human brain register something as a story—and once you do, you will tap into a powerful set of emotional responses that deepen your audience’s connection with your message.

What is a story? First and foremost, stories are about characters. If stories transport us to other worlds and experiences, characters are the portals. We see out of their eyes, and more importantly, we empathize with their feelings and struggles. Even 4,000-year-old stories from alien cultures have this effect. Most of us can imagine feeling Gilgamesh’s heartbreak at the death of his friend, or his fear of death.

Stories also take place in time. A story has a beginning, middle, and end, linked together with cause and effect. And a good story keeps us engaged through tension: how will the character overcome this challenge? Who is this mysterious villain? What will happen next?

Government work is also fundamentally about characters: human beings, for the people, by the people. And government work takes place in time: programs and projects have beginnings, middles, and ends, with outcomes linked by cause and effect!

The neuroscience of stories. Why are we so primed to care what happens to story characters who we do not know personally, or characters who do not even exist? Research shows that it’s physiological. Stories elicit empathy, in part, by triggering the release of a hormone called oxytocin in our brains.

Oxytocin is tied to many social phenomena, from maternal instincts to overcoming our latent fear of strangers. Although the concept of empathy is quite complex, oxytocin appears to play a powerful role in generating it. And empathy is how we connect so strongly with story characters. It is how we put ourselves in their (possibly imaginary) shoes.

Stories, stories, everywhere. How can you turn your presentation or report into a story? Focus on a character. A report about local education reform, for example, can begin with a specific student struggling with showing up to school. Even a brief tale about this character’s challenges can activate “storytelling mode” in your audience’s brains.

Humans are even primed to see stories where none obviously exist. Much like our tendency to see human faces in inanimate objects, a 1944 study revealed that people see character-driven stories in the movements of geometric shapes.

What does this mean in practical terms? You do not even need a human face to tell a story. We anthropomorphize everything! So even something as abstract as your organization or your project can become “characters” if you put them in the context of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

It will take time to get a story right and even more time to become a good storyteller. But, the only way to get good at it, like all great skills, is to practice. Perhaps your story may not stand the test of time as well as Gilgamesh’s, but a story might help your work have a greater impact today.

Adnan Mahmud is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Katharine Dow

I’ve been trying to introduce this concept at work (using the book Wired for Story as my inspiration). I love how you have presented this. Thanks!