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VOL. 132 | NO. 97 | Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Michael Graber

Science Behind Empathy and Storytelling

MICHAEL GRABER, Special to The Daily News

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A talk by Tim Urmston, Seek Co. founder and CEO, from the Front End of Innovation Conference 2017. Connecting brands with people they serve through insights, story, ideas and strategy – this is what supercharges a project.

Tim begins with a question. He shows a persona of a busy mom who needs more time according to the data.

Now, Tim changes the insight, but rooting the mom inside a story. Shoulders are turned down, her tone is sharp and she has a look of contempt.

This is a very different place from which to innovate: “It’s an emotional job versus an intellectual exercise.”

The mom in the scene has a child who requires insulin, a reminder to herself that she is broken, everything feels broken to her.

Her name is Emily. She doesn’t actually need more time; she needs something to improve the experience of giving insulin.

The story carries the weight of the empathy. The data alone doesn’t carry the weight of emotion and create the will to solve the problem.

Once a person told Tim this insight: “If I trust a person, my needs get met.” He adds, “The same is true for a brand.”

There are two types of empathy: cognitive and contagious. When we cringe or sigh, “we experience contagious empathy.”

Thinking versus feeling. Storytelling and the evolved brain.

Tim gives the group a brief tour of neurology and biology and their implications for empathy: lizard brain, limbic brain, new brain, prefrontal cortex and then the full body. Three nervous systems are outlines: head (central nervous system), heart (autonomic nervous system) and gut (enteric nervous system).

“If you are watching a story and you see someone sneak in someone’s house, you connect and feel the emotions.”

Data about break-ins don’t motivate, but stories do. Data can persuade people but not inspire them to act. Stories inspire action.

Using stories to rewrite a brand story can make a meaningful difference in sales. Always used this method with its wildly successful “Like a Girl” campaign, which has more than 100 million hits on YouTube and rising market share.

“Emotions connect and create resonance,” claims Tim. We are hardwired for empathy and storytelling.

Good stories also unearth age-old tensions we all share. If an organization can penetrate the emotions underneath why people use their products, they can harness the power of storytelling for advertising, marketing strategy and new product development.

Evil may be the factors that block empathy. Inhabiting empathy may make us all better people.

“You are in a pivotal position to change the products and services we use. Be storytellers. If you want to have a seat at the table, if you want to make a difference not only at your company but in the world, then learn to create connection with strong storytelling,” he ends.

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at southerngrowthstudio.com.

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