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What Princeton Discovered about Successful Communication

Are you struggling to engage with your audience when giving presentations?  Does it sometimes feel you are even putting them to sleep?

Uri Hasson Rectangular Hitchcock

Uri Hasson, Ph.D. – Princeton University. @Photo by Denise Applewhite

If you have had such experiences, discoveries by a team of Princeton researchers, lead by neuroscientist Uri Hasson, about how we communicate and connect with our listeners may come to your rescue!

Verbal communication is a joint activity between speakers and listeners—but despite much research over the years, studies of human communication was primarily done by analyzing individual brains.

Speaker-Listener Coupling

Speaker-Listener Coupling. @Photo by Uri Hasson.

However, in a pioneering study at Princeton University*, researchers for the first time used MRI brain scans to analyze communication between a speaker telling a story and a group of  listeners.

They found that not only were parts of the listeners’ brains activated by listening to the story— the same parts of the brain of  listeners and storyteller lit up!  In other words: stories literally synchronize our brains.

Another interesting finding was that with a high level of understanding and engagement, some regions of listeners’ brains lit up before the corresponding activity in the speaker’s brain—as if they were anticipating the next part of the story. With a low level of understanding and little active engagement, there was no such brain activity.

Mark Lanier Attorney

Mark Lanier, Trial Lawyer
Won $253M Vioxx Merck Judgement

A powerful example of the potential impact of stories in business is Mark Lanier—a leading U.S. trial lawyer known for using stories when presenting his cases.  Helped by his highly effective storytelling approach, he won a landmark $253 million judgement against one of the top firms in the pharmaceutical industry.

So in order to truly connect with your audience, tell a story that will present your message in a compelling way—and which your audience will not forget.

The practical take-away of the Princeton research is—without actively engaging your listeners, you have no successful communication.


* The Princeton research results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. (2010):

This post first appeared in Today’s Changing Times, newsletter of EMC Quest K.K. on April 21, 2014. 

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