According to Peter Muffett, today, via neuroscience, researchers are learning how to use storytelling to change your brain chemistry – and influence your fundraising activities.


storytelling changes brain chemistryThere is a lot of debate around the power of storytelling and many opinions around the strength of stories and imagery. The following brings a wee bit of science to the issue.

This is me (left). I’m officially the world’s fastest orca (do you like the frothing sea surrounding me?) in the Virgin London Marathon. The orca weighed 25kg – plus it was 2.5m in length. I was carrying the orca (and its baby) in the marathon during Branson’s first year of sponsorship as we wanted him to stop taking families to SeaWorld on package holidays.

I must say, I was rather hoping the red flag with a message to Branson saying Come on Richard, don’t be a dick was going to get me arrested soon after the start line. Sadly, not… seven hours and 25 minutes later I crossed the finish line.

Oh, and we’ve just heard Virgin is taking new captive animal attractions off its package holiday list – with a five-point plan to stop all animal attractions. Hats off to those organisations that have been campaigning. But the fight is not over. Visit and watch the A Letter to Richard Branson film. You will not be disappointed.

Anyway, so what’s this got to do with storytelling and science? I’m hoping that while reading this story I’ve caused a chemical reaction in your brain. Some of you, maybe just a few, are feeling emotionally engaged with me. You empathise and share my set of values. Some of you will join the campaign.

Over the last few years, we’ve been working with neuroscientists – reviewing our DRTV in Europe, the UK and Germany to be exact – to bring some science into the world of fundraising and storytelling. And the results are anything but fuzzy.

Ben and his father*

Let me tell you a story from another campaign ad. Ben is two-and-a-half-years old and has brain cancer. Ben is happy because he has finished two rounds of chemo and radiation, and he feels good for once. He doesn’t feel yucky. Ben’s father is so pleased to see Ben running around. As his father tells the story about Ben and his cancer, his voice starts to break. The father says it is very difficult to play with Ben because Ben believes everything is OK.

But his father knows something Ben doesn’t: that Ben’s brain cancer will kill him. He talks about how difficult it is to play with Ben, knowing that in three or six months Ben will be dead. And yet Ben is so happy. He is so beautiful. So Ben’s dad tries as hard as he can to be joyful around Ben.
It’s an amazing thing to know how little time his son has left. What is happening here is that the father is merging himself with his son. It’s as if the father himself is dying.

Response testing

So, while reading Ben’s story there are two primary responses and reactions happening in your brain. The first is distress and the other is empathy.
We know this because the members of our neuroscience groups, before and after watching our campaign ads, had blood samples taken. Using an EEG, they had 32 sensors attached across all areas of the brain connecting data 500 times every second. We also measured eye movement to pinpoint visual attention to content, facial movement, heartbeat, skin temperature and reaction. The participants’ brains released two chemicals:
Cortisol Cortisol focuses attention. The more cortisol you release, the more distressed you feel and the more focus you give to the story.

Oxytocin Oxytocin is associated with care, connection and empathy. The more oxytocin released, the more empathic you are towards Ben and his father, signifying how much people are willing to help others.

What we have found is that by deep storytelling, we are taking you into someone else’s world and thereby are changing the way our brains work and changing chemistry – and that’s why as social animals we are more likely to want to help when presented with strong storytelling, which leads me to our neuroscience projects.

First up, it’s not cheap to run neuroscience tests, however it does add science to what we probably already know. It also throws out some interesting findings and tests for future campaign optimisation.

While showing our DRTV campaigns, our focus groups were wired up against controls of campaigns that failed (not ours, of course!). The tests, combined with the blood tests, provided us with an opportunity to better understand four key areas:

Attention focus This measures sustained focus and shifts in focus over time, especially bearing in mind the behavioural economics of every one of us is to do nothing. We are always looking for the way of least action. This is especially important to remember around the ‘ask’ in storytelling.

Memory activation The formation of connections with new and past experiences.

Emotional motivation Comprises the intensity and extent of being drawn to the experience emotionally.

Action intent The likelihood of a behaviour change or intent to act on a message. What’s the point of a strong story if it doesn’t inspire an action?

The standout results

The results were interesting, to say the least. There were many pages of data but the three messages that stand out for me were:

Individuals vs groups Our viewers released more cortisol and oxytocin when presented with deeper stories about individuals. Focus was heightened and propensity to donate/act showed a marked increase.

Reduced engagement around solutions In those films where too much of a solution was offered, our viewers lost focus – and quickly.

Cash vs regular giving Asking too soon and asking for too much affected focus. Our viewers found themselves calculating costs and losing emotional engagement with the story. That’s not to say we can’t ask for a donation but we do need to be careful about when and how much.

Is the storytelling debate over? I doubt it. But we have science on our side.

*Thank you to Professor Paul Zak from the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont University, US.

Peter Muffett

Peter is CEO and co-founder of DTV Group, which is based in London and Europe when the sun is shining, and who is happily spending more and more time with DTV offices in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Korea and India. Peter is a self-confessed documentary junkie.


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