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The power of story in presentation

I’m a big classical music fan—and a bit of a Mozart geek. I love the way he was able to take a simple structure, like a sonata, and create something new that is completely unique and utterly unforgettable.

The power of music to intensify emotion, and inspire us to act, is well-documented. After all, it only took a few minutes for Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to send a French ballet audience into a riot. But now there is scientific research to help explain why music affects us, and how we might be able to apply these same principles to the stories we tell.

Robert Zattore, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University who has been studying the connection between music and emotion for decades, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing.” In it, he explains that the music we love often includes “peak emotional moments,” those notes, chords, or harmonies that send chills down our spines.

When we experience these moments, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the stratium of the brain, which is the same part of the brain that responds to stimuli like food or sex. (It also happens to be the part of the brain, according to Zattore, that makes us buy mp3s.)

But here’s the really interesting part. The release of dopamine into the stratium actually begins several seconds before the peak moment—a period that Zattore calls the “anticipation phase.” In other words, we listen to a piece of music, feel the tension building, and know in advance when it will be released. And, when it does, we reward ourselves with a feeling close to euphoria.

As it turns out, this is a skill we’ve been honing all of our lives. Over time, even non-musicians develop a finely tuned ability to recognize patterns in music that lead to feelings of pleasure, even if we don’t know how to describe these patterns.

In this way, music is a lot like storytelling. We spend our lives with stories—listening to them and sharing our own—and along the way, we internalize decades worth of patterns we can recognize in almost any story, whether we know it or not. We sense when tension is building, anticipate its release, and reward ourselves emotionally when our expectations are met.

As a communicator, this can be a powerful tool to help move audiences. Personal anecdotes, metaphors that hit close to home, and narrative structures with beginnings, middles, and ends all help to build tension within your presentation and then release it. And you can trust that your audience is reading the patterns in your stories and experiencing the emotion right along with you.

There is a tendency among presenters to assume that their audience just wants the facts, which would be the equivalent of a musician handing out sheet music. The truth is that your audience is wired to translate information into emotion the same way that you are. And story, like music, is one way to help them.

Maybe that’s why musicians like Amanda Palmer, Ben Zander, and Bono are such great presenters.

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