Inspiring Action Through Authentic Story

August 15, 2018 by
Tetra Prime Consulting, Aaron Garner

It’s a hot, sticky August afternoon at the wildlife refuge I volunteer for. A family of 5 is pulling up the drive for an unexpected visit; they’re hoping for a personal tour from the founder herself. On such a hot day, it’s the last thing she’d like to do, but when I explain the situation, our founder smiles and welcomes the chance to share her mission.

They roam the property as she performs a show-and-tell of the animals. They visit the coyote raised by humans, abandoned, then too habituated to be released in the wild. They visit the blind squirrel scheduled to be put down, but adopted last-minute by a local boy scout troop who regularly donates so she can live at the facility. They meet the countless birds, opossums, turtles, and foxes in the process of rehabilitation. She explains how they got there, how we’re treating them, and when they’ll be released.

At the end of the tour, the family is glowing, “You’re doing great work!” The grandmother slips a folded $100 in her hand, “Thank you so much, this is for the animals!’ They wave as they drive away. Later, our Facebook pings a new notification. They’ve given us 5 stars and a kind review, “Thank You. Our minds and hearts were open to these animals with your stories…”



When we talk about a call-to-action, the bridge between the “call” and the “action” lies in story. It’s the why that goes further than persuasion and beyond explanation. Good stories win over the gatekeeper of your conscious brain and access the deeper emotions we tend to mute in the day-to-day.

The emotions brewed from a good story are complex. Injustice, grief, hope, fear, triumph, peace, joy, love. Stories of this emotional calibre glide through our conscious mind and seep deep within the psyche – saturating the brain and bubbling back up in biological reactions.

In Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling (Harvard Business Review, 2014), neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak writes on the biological happenings studied during and after story. When we’re shown trust, kindness, and connection with others, our brains release a powerful neurochemical called oxytocin. This little chemical motivates cooperation with fellow humans, enhances the ability to feel a total stranger’s emotions (it’s known as the “empathy chemical” for a reason), and rushes through the bloodstream in life-affirming moments such as love and childbirth – it’s even an ingredient in breast milk.

Zak’s lab found that well-constructed, character-driven stories also stimulate oxytocin release. Thanks to this chemical, great stories turn your brain into an empathetic ball of mission-driven, emotional mush primed to join in the teller’s narrative. It’s the reason, Zak explains, you feel a sense of dominance when you walk out of a James Bond flick or feel motivation to work out after watching 300. It’s these powerful empathetic feelings that stimulate action, like purchasing a gym membership the next day or starting a career in espionage.

It explains why that family slipped us a $100 without thinking twice. They even perfectly paraphrased it themselves, “our hearts and minds were open to these animals with your stories.” Oxytocin was the key, and it’s release was stimulated by the power of authentic story.



Stimulating this biological reaction  – whether evidenced by brainwaves, tear stains, or simply felt at the heartstrings – makes listeners more receptive and pliable to the idea of supporting your mission. But how do we stimulate with story?

In How To Tell A Great Story (Harvard Business Review, 2014), editorial manager Carolyn O’Hara boils it down best. She explains, “Stories create ‘sticky’ memories by attaching emotion to things that happen.” This is the basic anatomy of great stories. You know those tales you just can’t get out of your head? Well-placed, emotional elements within the narrative created that “stickiness,” and it’s the sticky stories that get your message noticed.

Marketing and communications specialist Wade Coggeshall explains, “Especially in our current digital age, people are bombarded with advertising. It’s nearly inescapable online. With everyone receiving so much advertising, you have to craft a message that’s going to stick with them after it’s over. That’s why storytelling is so important. It conveys what you offer in a memorable way.”

The same emotional elements of sticky story also inspire a sense of authenticity in the teller. It’s this potent combination of stickiness and authenticity that captures the hearts and minds of your audience; if you can capture that, you can inspire action at that biological level.

To get you started, here are 4 emotional elements of authentic stories that stick:


Attention Through Tension

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

“Stories motivate (action) when they can sustain attention,” explains Philip J. Zak in Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Attention is a scarce resource in the brain, but Zak’s lab found that tension is the key to holding it. If your story has tension, it’s likely attentive viewers and listeners will share the emotions of your characters, and even more to likely they’ll mimic the feelings and behaviors of those characters long after your story ends.

In our wildlife tale above, the tension is easy. There’s a fearful, human question that hangs in the air with our animals’ stories – “will they survive?”  In the same way, businesses and entrepreneurs create tension using the problems their services solve. Our services solve the health problems of injured animals – without us, they may die. If your product or service didn’t exist, what outcome might result? Use the problems you prevent to build a sense of tension in your story (without sensationalizing of course).

Your company’s failures and successes are another great source of tension. What battles have you fought to get where you are today? This strategy requires the next element on our list – a sense of vulnerability.



“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” – Brene Brown

Authentic stories evoke truth, and truth emerges out of moments of vulnerability. In the act of being open about your experiences – both good and bad – your audience humanizes your message and relates to it in a memorable way. Carolyn O’Hara explains in How to Tell a Great Story, “There may be a tendency to not want to share personal details (…), but anecdotes that illustrate struggle, failure, and barriers overcome are what make leaders appear authentic and accessible.”

Highlighting the struggles behind your mission (or message, or lesson) may be the last thing you want to do, but it helps the audience understand your truth and through truth, you become a trustworthy teller. At Fanelli Pathways LLC, owner Bill Fanelli uses story as a key component in his business development services. He explains the importance of truth in story, no matter your message,

“Say a leader is sharing a lesson of her experience to a group of emerging leaders. If the story has some pain and challenge in it, then the leader shows vulnerability, connecting with the audience while teaching a leadership lesson. This requires the leader to be truthful,” He continues, “It’s all about connecting with your audience on some level.”

Vulnerability fosters that connection.



“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” – Mission Impossible

In struggle we have two options – cower or conquer. Your audience knows this. When you’re vulnerable with your struggles, the evidence that you’ve won lies in the mission that made you face and overcome those struggles in the first place. Mission-driven stories frame you and your message as the hero. In The Four Truths of Storytelling (Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2014)chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Peter Gruber reminds, “A great salesperson knows how to tell a story in which the product is the hero.” Emphasizing the mission (or your why) that fuels your action helps achieve this.

If you can illustrate your mission (or product, idea, service, lesson, vision, etc.) as the hero, then your call-to-action transcends. It’s no longer a marketing plea, but a chance for your audience to join in your heroism. In our wildlife tale above, our founder did just that. She made it obvious that the hero in these animals’ stories was the refuge itself. The family of 5 recognized this. They didn’t just “like,” “share,” and “donate,” they joined our mission and became heroes too.



“One should use common words to say uncommon things.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer

Sticky stories are simple stories. They’re often boiled down to a beginning, middle, and end that can be summed up in a single sentence. The key to simplicity is a “less is more” approach that avoids losing your audience to unnecessary detail. In How To Tell a Great StoryCarolyn O’Hara advises leaving out details that don’t “advance your story in an artful way.” She writes,

“(…) transporting your audience with a few interesting, well-placed details – how you felt, the expression on your face, the humble beginnings of a now-great company – can help immerse your listeners and drive home your message.”

Choose details that evoke the story elements above and construct your narrative with clarity. Andrew Embry, storytelling catalyst of Eli Lilly and Company, explains, “Storytelling is about moving people and clarity is what makes people move. If your story lacks clarity, it lacks power.”


Tense, vulnerable, mission-driven, simplicity – the characteristics of authentic story. When told in the right way to the right audience, the likelihood of inspired action becomes tenfold. Who knows, someone may slip your mission a $100 when you least expect it. And yeah, all you had to do was tell a good story.

Tetra Prime Consulting, Aaron Garner August 15, 2018
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