How often have you heard that your writing should “show, not tell”? It’s evergreen advice, but why? In a Communications Network seminar, social-change writer Jessica Blank broke down the neuroscience of storytelling and how your nonprofit can use character and narrative to connect with audiences.

  1. Humans are hardwired for narrative. Storytelling activates the mirror neuron network, making us feel like we’re a participant, not just a spectator, in the story.
  2. Stories spur us to take action.  Relatable stories release oxytocin, an empathy hormone, and narrative tension releases ACTH, a stress hormone. This combination inspires us to take action, like volunteer, donate or share an article.
  3. Let the experience speak for itself. Don’t layer your opinion on top of a powerful story. The story by itself conveys the message more compellingly.
  4. Trigger connection. Draw attention to the character’s humanity. What was their childhood like? Where did they grow up? What are their imperfections? Their aspirations?
  5. Engage all five senses. The more detail you can weave into the story, the more your audience will be drawn in. If you’re interviewing a potential spokesperson, a good prompt is “walk me through that moment.”

When we try to convince people to care about our cause with data points and logic, we risk only reaching those who already agree. However, when we introduce new audiences to a character they empathize with, they can understand and connect with our cause.