What do politics, biology and James Bond have in common?

October 26, 2012

It is only a matter of days before the next James Bond movie, Skyfall, comes out, and I for one cannot wait. Aside from the beautiful locations and cars, James Bond always delivers a good story in the most satisfying way. We can all watch safe in the knowledge that Bond, our rogue hero, will stick it to the villain and before all is said and done good will triumph over evil.

The first Bond movie – Dr. No – came out in 1962, nine years after the first book was published. That Bond is one of the longest continuous movie series in history is, in part, a testament to the power of its simple formula. Because when you strip away the beautiful locations and cars – as well as the gratuitous product placement – you are left with the core elements of story that have shaped oral tradition and folk lore for thousands of years. Hero. Victim. Villain. Values.

Resource Media recently conducted a storytelling workshop for the Conservation Biology Institute to teach its staff the storytelling skills that will help them talk about their work in a way that connects with people. Because all people, no matter how grown-up or well-informed, connect to issues through stories. This makes intuitive sense because we’ve been listening to stories since we were born, but the science confirms it too.

A team of scientists at Princeton used MRI brain scans to track the activity generated by stories. They had a woman tell stories while in an MRI scanner and they also had a group of volunteers listen to the stories through headphones while their brains were scanned. During the stories, the volunteers’ brains synchronized with the storyteller’s. When the storyteller had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could essentially plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.

Politicians also use this technique to connect. When the President gives his State of the Union address, he always highlights certain guests because their stories demonstrate important points he is trying to make. Sometimes it’s a complex point, but the injection of a personal, small-scale story makes his argument far more accessible and memorable to a broad audience. Those faces and stories stay with us long after the factual details become fuzzy.

That’s not to say that facts aren’t important. Scientists’ work centers on finding and presenting solid facts. But stories that connect to people’s core values are the key that opens hearts and minds to our messages. Whether it’s about national policy, conservation biology, or an evil weapons dealer plotting to spark World War III, a little story always leaves a lasting impression.