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The Neuroeconomics of Engagement

A conversation with Paul J. Zak, Ph.D.,

gstockstudio / Adobe Stock
Source: gstockstudio / Adobe Stock

Narratives help humans make sense of the world and build community. Storytelling is universal; it holds the power to bridge cultural and individual divides. Stories serve as powerful propagators of information that pass down the values and ideas promoted within a culture. In other words, our stories are intergenerational time capsules for preserving, instilling, and exchanging values. In today’s interconnected world, the art and science of storytelling journeys far beyond the age-old fireside chat . It has become a vital part of globalized media through technology. With our focus collectively divided between in-person and digital, alongside our instant access to unlimited online content, it is very difficult to capture someone’s undivided attention. What makes a conversation, story, or meeting memorable in such a busy, competitive economy?

A New Metric of Engagement

According to neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., narratives that immerse us inspire action. Immersion, a neurological state of attention and emotional resonance, seems to measure the value of experiences.

Humans are hypersensitive to social information; that’s the essence of being a social creature. When it comes to social interactions, humans attend to what’s important, and what’s important is how we feel in a moment. If we feel safe, the brain releases oxytocin, a biochemical that reduces physiologic stress, promotes empathy, and motivates reciprocation . “The more we release oxytocin, the more the brain becomes biased to release it. Therefore if we train ourselves to connect with others, it becomes easier to connect with others over time,” explains Zak.

Since 2000, Zak’s lab at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California has developed a portfolio of situations during which the brain releases oxytocin outside of breastfeeding, birth, or sex, which are its traditional associations.

Oxytocin signals who to trust , and motivates us to work together towards group goals. “Our brains are built to congregate. We like to be in groups. That’s what makes this pandemic so distressing,” says Zak. According to one of Zak’s clients, people can typically sustain states of immersion during an in-person discussion for about 20 minutes; meanwhile, in a video conference, that drops to about 12 minutes.

In addition to this, the late Judith E. Glaser, organizational anthropologist and creator of Conversational Intelligence, stated that a common conversational challenge surrounds how the brain disconnects every 12 to 18 seconds to evaluate and process what is being said. This means that we pay as much attention to our own thoughts as we are to what others are saying. With all of this in mind, now more than ever it is critical for people to communicate effectively. We must strive to listen to connect rather than listen to reply.

Develop a Strategy

In order to engage your audience, you have to emotionally invest them. Engaging content is both memorable and useful. “Attention is a necessary condition, but the key is for people to care. From a neuroscience perspective, emotional tagging causes the information to be saved top of mind,” explains Zak. Rather than commanding or trying to sell your ideas, use storytelling and examples of past experiences to engage people in a constructive way. Stories have the power to fully immerse our minds and hearts, which can lead to a shared bonding experience. So the next time you are presenting ideas, delivering a speech, or creating content, make sure to include these three tips to make it memorable:

  • Design the total experience for end-users. Make the story human-scale. It must be authentic and contain true emotion. Harness people’s passions and strive for a process that resonates with your audience. Begin with a mystery, build towards a climax, and then resolve that conflict and tie up the loose ends. Be sure to explain how the events changed the people involved and the world around them.
  • Create an environment for "Listening to Connect." When possible, include a person’s name, instead of representing them as a bit of data. Connecting the data to a person creates a story that has the potential to enhance a bonding experience. Ask questions such as, “What do you think would work here?” This increases trust, the most important element in achieving effective conversations. Ask how the solutions suggested might help the people involved and promote positive change in the future.
  • Make it conversational. Engaging people is an exercise in human connection. The key is to know your audience: Is the goal to inform, persuade, or transform? Appropriately tailoring your message can promote a conversational style and tone.
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