The Story

One winter break from college many years ago, I was a bit depressed.

I can’t remember exactly why.

I think college wasn’t measuring up to be the adventure I had been looking forward to. I felt like the kid in the Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game” …

“And so the years go by, and now the boy is twenty. And though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true …”

Anyway, I needed to boost my spirits. Get my flow going.

So I turned to drugs.

Not the kind found in a pill, or a syringe, or a line of a powder on a mirror.

The kind you find smuggled into the pages of a good story.

In this case, it was in a story from the Star Trek:The Next Generation episode titled “Tapestry.”

Briefly, in this episode of the best television show of all time, Captain Picard is given a chance to rewrite an “untidy” bit of his past by the omnipotent smart ass, “Q.”

Problem is, when Picard corrects the mistake (by avoiding a fight with a mean ass alien) it changes his entire life … because that act of caution set him on a lukewarm trajectory that did not lead to a life as a Captain of a starship.

Instead, it leads to a life as a low level lab flunkie, as Picard discovers when Q drops him back into his own time frame.

Picard in a blue uniform with low rank
That’s Lieutenant Junior Grade Picard. Demotion hurts.

Q explains it this way:

“That Picard never had a brush with death … Never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be … He drifted … never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He learned to play it safe.

“And he never – ever – got noticed by anyone.”

That episode wrenches me every time – and that speech by Q in particular.

It’s a reminder – sometimes you must be bold. Stand up, even when you’re afraid, or you will be passed by.

It’s basically a kick in the ass.

But instead of coming from a sharp steel-tip boot, it’s delivered in the form of a delightful tale. (Written by Ronal D. Moore, who went on to relaunch Battlestar Galactica.)

After I watch this episode, I get fired up.

And I know it’s there waiting for me when I need it. It’s in my “kit” – my go-to story resources that will trigger specific feelings.

We’re constantly told that selling is emotional.

Stories can help us stroke the right emotion we need to target.

Need your prospect to feel inspired?

Bring on the tale of the underdog … like the one about the washed-up 63 year old who finally made his fortune.

Need to generate sympathy?

How about a story of the poor kid who only wants one thing for Christmas: a new pair of shoes for his dying mother.

(Yes, I’m referencing the song “Christmas Shoes” – which is blatantly maudlin, downright manipulative if you’re feeling cynical – and yet I am defenseless when it plays on the radio at Christmas time. Play song, cue tears.)

In fact, the idea that “stories are a drug” is more than just a metaphor:

It’s a scientific fact.

Image of Jesse Pinkman from "Breaking Bad" with caption: "Yeah Science"
It’s wonderful to see young people enthusiastic about science.

Paul J Zack, a neuroeconomist, wrote a book which I have not read called The Moral Molecule, examining the way oxytocin, (also called the “love” or “trust” hormone) molds trust and social behavior.

Okay, so I haven’t read that book, but I did read this fine article where Zak discusses stories and oxytocin. (You should read it, too. But not until you’re done reading this one. Because that would be rude. And I would cry.)

Zak and his colleagues showed a tear-jerker video to human lab rats and then measured the oxytocin in their bloodstreams.

Turns out those folks had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood stream after watching the short movie.

Cool, right?

But it gets better for us money-hungry marketers …

Because those participants with the highest levels of oxytocin ended up donating the most money to a charity after they watched the video.

Brain chemistry changed by the drug of story.

But it has to be the right kind of story. Another cool point you’ll uncover in that Zak article is that only certain kinds of stories activated the oxytocin release.

Which kinds?

Stories that hewed to the traditional dramatic arc, which I wrote about last week.

(Yes, you can go back and read that first if you haven’t. It’s not rude, because I gave you permission. And this article is almost over anyway.)


Stories can trigger powerful emotions. Select the right emotions for your message and tell a good story to flip that switch. But use this power carefully.

With great story comes great responsibility.

Stay Tuned For Next Week …

In which I walk the halls of (fake) Washington DC to discover how to capture ultimate power

What stories do you use to “self medicate”?

Let me know in the comments below. And as always,

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