Narrative is for the Reflective Brain

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A new restaurant opened up down the street. It looks and smells delicious, so you mention to your friend Julie that it may be worth checking out.

“I don’t know, man,” she says, “It looks great, but last week my roommate that really loves exotic food, Tim, went there. He got SUPER sick that night, though, and threw up everywhere!”

In many ways, narratives are designed to help the reflective brain consume information easier. Lets take a look at three of these ways.

  1. Narratives use a protagonist as a proxy.
  2. Narratives align and simulate causal elements.
  3. Narratives evoke emotional appeal and tie it to meaning.

1. Narratives use a protagonist as a proxy.

People often respond to confrontation by getting defensive – telling them outright that their ideas are bad or their understanding is incorrect may not be a great way to pull them to your side. We naturally like people better that agree with us 1, so by siding with somebody and putting a character in the situation instead, we can teach our audience something while avoiding direct conflict.

In the example, Julie doesn’t disagree with us outright, but helps us come to a different conclusion by telling us about her friend’s experience.

2. Narratives align and simulate causal elements.

As part of our evolution, we’re programmed to think about the causal relationships between things that we perceive. Julie could have told us something factual, like “That place didn’t pass the health inspection,” or shared an opinion “I think that place looks gross,” but it wouldn’t have fed our brain what it wants: an understanding of what our own experience would be based on a causal relationship.

Julie’s story lays the groundwork by giving a cause (Tim ate the food) and an effect (He got really sick). If we took the same action as Tim, we risk having a similar outcome.

3. Narratives evoke emotional appeal and tie it to meaning.

Empathy describes the natural human ability to feel or understand things from another person’s point of view 2. Because we’re all naturally empathetic to a certain extent, and emotional intensity helps our brains prioritize important things, syncing an emotional moment makes it more meaningful and memorable.

In the story, anyone that has had food sickness before can instantly feel both the pain in Tim’s stomach, not to mention the disgust Julie felt when she saw her apartment. Since we can picture this in our mind – and feel it in our gut – it feels more likely to happen to us, and like something we should avoid! 3

Think about your own narratives.

At work, most of us have things we need to explain to our bosses and our peers in ways that they will understand quickly even if they don’t have time for all of the details. In our personal lives, we also have things we love to talk about – politics, religion, our favorite restaurants, our least favorite people.

Think about your own most used topics. What stories could you tell to help your audience understanding your perspective in a more meaningful and memorable way?