I recently wrote about researcher Paul Zak’s extensive work behind the neuroscience of story. In short, the brain produces a chemical called oxytocin when we connect with the tension in a story. Once our oxytocin levels rise, we’re more likely to take action, whether donating to charitable causes or signing up for a gym membership.

So what? Am I supposed to inject oxytocin into my customers’ veins?

Nah. There’s actually a far simpler approach. 

Based on Zak’s research, strategic storytelling can be boiled down to a simple four-word formula: attention -> tension -> empathy -> action.

Let’s break it down.

Attention

A story has no value if no one sees or hears it. Someone has to discover your story before they can engage with your story. But once they’ve found it, it’s your job to pull them in. Find a hook. 

Tension

Tension is born out of a challenge. What must the character overcome? How much free time are they wasting taking care of their own lawn every week? Fostering proper tension will result in empathy, whether positive (you could have all of this chocolate!) or negative (imagine a life without chocolate).

Empathy

The audience feels for the character. They can relate to them. They want to be like the all-star athlete or support the malnourished child. There are so many posts to follow about the importance of empathy. But what 

Action

What should the audience do because of the story? Donate to the cause? Invest in your startup? Buy your small-batch, handcrafted, artisan, cage-free, vegan pastries? If you desire to inspire action, then say it!


You can spend days reading all 736 pages of The Seven Basic Plots (there’s a reason Christopher Booker spent decades working on the book) or you could create stories with this simple formula.