When your body knows a good story before you do: The Paul Zak interview

Paul Zak knows how a story gets under your skin.

In fact, as a pioneer in the neuroscience of persuasion, he can precisely measure your physiological responses as you listen to a story, then predict with amazing accuracy what you’ll do next.

In my book, Paul is a superstar. I first stumbled across his work when I started to seriously consider storytelling as a strategic tool for businesses. His TED Talk, “Trust, morality – and oxytocin?” has more than 1.6 million views. His research and insights deeply informed my Storytelling for Impact program, and I reference him in virtually every presentation and workshop I deliver.


Recently, I reached out to Paul to learn more. I discovered that his work has only gathered momentum. He recently founded a new company, called Immersion Neuroscience, which is in addition to his work at Claremont Graduate University, where he’s the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a Professor of Economics, Psychology, and Management.

Paul was kind enough to make time to talk to me. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:

Paul, I was excited to learn about your new company, Immersion Neuroscience. Tell me about it.

I’ll jump to the punchline: It's a 15-year overnight success.

Fifteen years ago we started measuring changes in neuroactive chemicals to see if we could predict people's actions after a stimulus. In particular, we focused on oxytocin, and we found that there were differences in the chemicals the brain was producing when people responded to a stimulus in an objective way and when they did not.

As we did that work, DARPA, the Department of Defense, began a program called Narrative Networks. Their idea was to fund science that could give soldiers a new superpower, the power of persuasion. That led us to understand that we were essentially in the persuasion business.

I like to tell audiences when I speak publicly that persuasion is not a bad word. I feel like if we're going to communicate to people, we ought to do it as effectively as possible in every realm.

When did this become about more than just science?

Well, at some point we got press coverage and companies started coming to us saying, hey, we'd like to improve our messaging, our experiences, and our training to become better persuaders too. Could you help us do that? And we said, sure.

We created a single index that we call the Immersion Quotient, which proved to be predictive of outcomes – things like sales bumps and purchases, recall of information, and social sharing. We spent a couple of years and a ton of money creating software and a sensor suite so that anybody can measure neurologic immersion in real time, for any number of people. Last January we launched our company, Immersion Neuroscience, in which for the first time I believe we have democratized neuroscience, and we have some very happy clients. Right now we're getting into the ability to predict people's behavior, potentially before they even know what they’re going to do.

How do your business clients use what you’re offering?

Take corporate events as an example. You know, you go to theses offsite meetings, and at the end you get an email asking: How'd you like the hotel? Was the lunch any good? If I’m the business owner, I don't care about that. What I care about is: Did this expensive offsite event – that I burned a couple of days and a lot of money on – did that drill something into your head? Do you remember it? Can you use it? That's a difficult thing to assess.

Our insight was that that this tool we built, which we’d thought was narrowly focused on other areas, turned out to be a sort of general-purpose indicator of how amazing an experience is. Immersion is a leading indicator of the experience tagging itself as important in your brain, and when something is tagged as important, it's easier to recall and then act on.

What have you learned about the role of storytelling as a factor in persuasion?

Storytelling has been a big factor in our work. Early on, we started by testing how a story could produce an outcome, like a donation to a charity or recall a week later. We wanted to learn: What makes a story effective? And then, of course, what about bad stories – can an algorithm pick up when a story sucks? We used stories from the NPR program StoryCorps. You've heard these. They're personally narrated, edited audio stories. Some are very rambling – they don't have always have a classical kind of narrative arc. But some are fabulous – they're so good they make you cry.

We worked hard to build the algorithms around not just what makes stories good, but also why particular stories failed. The reasons, as you undoubtedly know from your work, are that bad stories don't sustain emotion. They don't have tension, they don't you make care enough about the characters, or they just have a flat narrative structure and they don't come to a point.

We’ve analyzed movie trailers and we find that we can predict with pretty good accuracy – about 61 percent – whether a movie’s going to be a hit or a miss.

Where do you see this with your clients?

Here’s an example, which we haven’t reported yet. We’re working with movie studios to evaluate the effectiveness of movie trailers. I don’t know if you know this, but the distributors of movies make the bulk of their income in the first week after release. That's why there's this big push to get people into theaters that first weekend. They’ve got to create a huge demand right up front because that's where they make most of their money – it's basically a sliding scale after that.

We’ve analyzed movie trailers and we find that we can predict with pretty good accuracy – about 61 percent – whether a movie’s going to be a hit or a miss. We found that effective trailers create a high tension and hold it. They introduce characters, they build a crisis – they unfold a story arc in maybe two and half, three minutes. And then, they don’t resolve the tension. So, for the viewer, the question is, how do I get rid of that tension? And of course, the answer is to go buy a ticket and find out. You’ve got to learn what happens next.

It's interesting that we always think about closing the story arc, but a lot of effective advertising is about not closing that arc and forcing you to do something so that you get rid of the tension.

This brings to mind a concept which, I must confess, I have shamelessly “borrowed” from you, which is the difference between “transactional” stories and “transcendent” stories in business. I talk about this in my workshops and it’s sometimes the most profound insight that people get out of the whole day.

Oh, bless you! In my last book, “Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies,” I have a whole chapter on purpose narratives, and the transcendent ones are highly aspirational. They set a difficult but realizable goal, they’re often the “Hero's journey” type of story. Our experiments show they’re very motivating.

In one experiment we had university students enter emails to alumni who were getting hit up for donations. In the baseline case we said: Look, we know this is not interesting but we’re paying you 15 bucks an hour to do it, so try to be accurate and enter as many as you can in an hour. And with another group of students, and we said, okay, we want you to enter emails but first let us tell you why. We said: “Here's the story of Susan, from a family of hard-working immigrants, and she gets to attend your amazing university because she got a scholarship, and she’s thriving.” Now the message is that the task is not just about grabbing money from alumni, it's about creating scholarships and changing lives. And what we found was that, with that second group, about 50 percent more emails were entered, and accuracy was much higher. People just tried harder because of that simple transcendent narrative.

Getting paid is great, but serving others is highly motivating. As social creatures, we need to be connected to a community of humans, and that means we’re oriented to serve other people. Almost everybody responds to that more than just an offer of cash. I think all of businesses as being about service to some degree, so these stories are universal.

Where this resonates for me, having spent a long time in corporate roles, is that business life is often driven by metrics that accrue to transactions, yet people are hungry for meaning, which tends to come in transactional stories.

Yeah, especially when those stories are on a human scale – when they focus on an individual and on a crisis that resolves. It could be a customer, an employee, a partner. A business can get a lot of value out of capturing these kinds of purpose-driven narratives.

In my book, I talk about the management consulting company KPMG, who did that. They'd already pulled things from their archives and made posters about all the important events in world history that they’d been involved in over the years, like the Yalta Conference and the Iran hostage crisis. And then they figured that their consultants might have a lot of these types of stories, but at a smaller, human scale. So they created an app called “Ten Thousand Stories.” They thought that in maybe three years they might get ten thousand stories, but in fact it was more like three months. People were thrilled to talk about what their work meant, and the stories they told were transcendent – how something they did in their daily work had a fundamentally important impact on somebody.

What kind of call to action do you leave people with, on the basis of all that you're working on today?

That's a great question and I think it depends on the situation. But key is always to let your authentic self come out. That means you need to be willing to be vulnerable. And the fact is, it’s really hard to be fully emotionally vulnerable.

Going onstage and being vulnerable in front of a lot of people is not natural to me. I had to learn how to do it and it's still scary, but when I do, it creates a connection that can't happen any other way. I was at a corporate conference a earlier this year in Orlando with a wonderful group of people, mostly from Latin America, and it was one of those amazing experiences with, you know, hundreds of people laughing and taking selfies and just having a great time. This was day one of a three-day conference. The next day, I sent one of the organizers an email and told him I've never felt so much love in the room. He sent an email back and attached a video that he took on his phone, where he panned around the room and the entire audience stood up and said, “We love you, Paul!” And I was just blown away. I mean, even telling you, I'm blown away. Who does that?

One final thing. How can people connect with you to learn more?

Easy! You can find me at http://www.immersionneuro.com or shoot me an email. I love it when people contact me.