paper cutouts of people lined against wall with one person raising his hands

If you’ve ever cried reading a novel or laughed during a movie, you know that storytelling can bring out your emotions. But did you realize that stories have the power to shape behavior by changing brain chemistry?

Research led by neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak found that participants produced two chemicals—cortisol and oxytocin—while watching a video of a dad describing life with his terminally ill toddler. Cortisol production was linked to viewers’ sense of distress, while oxytocin correlated with empathy.

The study used charitable donations to measure impact. Participants who produced both cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to donate money when given the opportunity. In fact, the amount of oxytocin released predicted how much money they were willing to give.

But not all stories drive action. Zak ran another experiment featuring a video of the same family. Unlike the first video, the father didn’t use the word “cancer” or describe his conflicting emotions playing with his son. Participants’ attention waivered, their bloodwork showed less chemical response, and their donations fell.

Zak’s research demonstrates that storytelling can spur action, if it’s done well. It’s a valuable lesson for home visiting programs seeking to recruit participants, raise funds, or encourage policymakers to support family-friendly legislation. While there’s no single way to write the “perfect” home visiting story, some techniques and strategies are more effective than others. Here are three organizations dedicated to helping storytellers hone their craft.

Storytelling for Good

Storytelling for Good offers no-cost resources to help social impact organizations expand their research and impact. Online lessons and articles cover four domains:

  • Strategy
  • Content
  • Engagement
  • Evaluation

Lessons include interactive exercises that walk users through each step of a process. For example, a lesson on highlighting organizational impact includes a Social Impact Story Map for structuring a narrative arc and outlining a call to action.

The Goodman Center

The Goodman Center helps “good causes reach more people with more impact” through public interest communications. The center offers online and in-person workshops that address issues such as connecting with—and catalyzing action among—target audiences. Its monthly newsletter, free-range thinking, shares additional tips and resources from like-minded organizations.

Working Narratives

Working Narratives helps communities tell compelling stories through its work at the “intersection of arts, technology, and social change.” Free resources include Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide, which is organized into four sections:

  • Strategy
  • Storytelling
  • Methods
  • Structure

The 32-chapter guide addresses a range of topics, from engaging audiences in participatory research to creating a sense that their participation can effect change. The guide also links to additional tools, research, and case studies.

Effective storytelling doesn’t have to be a mystery. These are just a few of the resources available to home visiting programs to help them tell their stories and reach their goals. Want to see home visiting storytelling in action? See our December 2017 blog post on the California Home Visiting Program’s storytelling campaign.