The Big Picture: The Story According to Neuroscience

This is not an easy time to be in sales. Buyers have become more knowledgeable, rendering the one-time information asymmetry favoring the seller almost nonexistent. Back in the day, salespeople were among the few sources of detailed product information. Now, with the plethora of Internet product reviews and other online sources of product information, salespeople’s roles as valued dispensers of hard-to-access information is gone. Salespeople are faced with a choice — they can either become glorified order takers or something else.

What is this something else? Dan Pink, the author of To Sell is Human, suggests, “When buyers can know more than sellers, sellers are no longer protectors and purveyors of information. They’re the curators and clarifiers of it [emphasis mine] — helping to make sense of the blizzard of facts, data, and options.”


That sounds good. Selling with an early 21st century, Brooklyn-esque twist. We’re all curators now, right? But is it enough to encourage young people to go into sales and prompt customers to buy products? No. Something else is needed, and that something else is classic “Back to the Future” — a centuries-old technique backed by cutting-edge science.

While the explosion of information may have created a need for a trusty curator, it has also made the human touch more important than ever. Information, at the end of the day, is cold — and while it may move minds, it will not move hearts. If you really want to engage customers, you’ll have to do better than Super Curator. Recent advances in neuroscience back this up. Our brains can be divided into three sub-brains. The Adaptive Neuroscience Research Institute describes each as follows:

  • Rational Brain: “This is the neocortex — the outermost layer of the brain and the latest one to develop in evolution (about 3 million years ago). This area of the brain is responsible for processing facts, language, logical skills, analytical skills and it is where your judgment comes from.”
  • Emotional Brain: “It supports a variety of functions including social interactions, emotions, behavior and memory.”
  • Reptilian Brain: “This sub-brain includes our brain stem and the cerebellum, which are the oldest structures of our brain (500 million years old). These areas of the brain are responsible for motor balance, safety, avoidance, survival instincts, and involuntary actions such as heart rate control and food digestion. The reptilian brain is very fast acting, but it is limited due to its very instinctual nature.”

Getting back to Super Curator, she’s an expert at speaking to the Rational Brain. Speaking to the Rational Brain is certainly important, but only speaking to it is like bonding with someone in a dentist’s office that has limited decision-making authority while ignoring everyone else. It alone is not going to win you the sale. Similarly, a salesperson that appeals to the Rational Brain alone is not connecting with who may be the true decision maker.

New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, about the Rider (rational mind) and the Elephant (emotional/unconscious mind). When they disagree, guess which one wins. Hint: It’s not the Rider.

So, how does one talk to this stealth boss of the brain? Researchers agree that the best way to do so is through telling a story. According to Jeffrey Zacks, the director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, “Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story.”1

Creating this mental simulation enlists the cooperation of several regions of the brain. And these are not just any regions; they are the ones that have the most profound impact on the listener or reader. In 2009, Zacks and his team conducted a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study participants’ brains as they read short stories. They found that the same areas in participants’ brains lit up when they read about a fictional character encountering a situation as someone would who actually encountered the situation in real life. A good story causes us to make a character’s story our own.

A key ingredient of a good story is a hero we care about. Make the hero of your story another customer who has faced similar challenges as the customer to whom you’re speaking. While some people recommend making your product the hero, I believe it’s more effective to make your product the tool or weapon that enables your customer to be the hero. Remember: to be really compelling, a story should be about the customer — not you.

Having a hero is just one key element of stories. Read the online article “Once Upon a Time at the Office: 10 Storytelling Tips to Help You Be More Persuasive”2 to learn the others. And hopefully you’ll be well on your way to adding Super Storyteller to your list of monikers.


  1. Washington University in St. Louis: The Source. Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest. Available at: 2009/ 01/ readers- buildvivid-mental-simulations-of-narrative-situations-brain-scans-suggest/. Accessed May 9, 2017.
  2. Fast Company. Once Upon a Time at the Office: 10 Storytelling Tips to Help You Be More Persuasive. Available at: 3015140/ once-upon-a-time- at-theoffice-10-storytelling- tips- to-help -you-be -more-persu. Accessed May 9, 2017.

From MENTOR. June 2017;8(6): 8-9.

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