How to Make a Brain Light Up Like Las Vegas: The Ass-Kicking Power of a Good Story

Love him or hate him, US president number 44 was very different from the one that came before him.  And I’m not talking about the color of his skin.

Something happened at the beginning of his first term that prompted President Obama to publicly apologize.  It was then that I realized this guy was not only different from his Republican predecessors, but his Democrat ones too.

I don’t recall the exact incident, but I distinctly remember his two-part reaction and the clear message it sent:

First, he took responsibility for the blunder. Second, he apologized.  And in doing so, the president of the United States admitted wrongdoing.  Admission of guilt = weakness, right?

Or does it?

With this unprecedented reaction, he also showed great vulnerability – the thing that clearly separated him from his predecessors, in my mind.

In The Culture Code, Danny Coyle distills five years of undercover research into three skills shared by the most successful teams (from military to criminal underworld).

Unsurprisingly, sitting a top with “Build Safety” and “Establish Purpose” is the skill demonstrated by president # 44, “Share Vulnerability”.

In addition to the short, ideas-rich format, what I like most about this new book is how Mr. Coyle ends each section with two “how to” chapters followed by a final “Ideas in Action” one (3 sections for 3 skills).

Masterfully building interest in each section’s first chapters, he tells good and bad stories that further bolster his case for the showcased skill.  But, this isn’t a book review – for that you can search your favorite online source.


From Campfire To Boardroom

While describing the power of a simple psychological experiment in “Establish Purpose”, Coyle compares what happens to the brain when it hears a fact (small light) vs. when it hears a story (Las Vegas).

From TED Talks to the New York Times non-fiction best seller list, there’s been a lot of hype over Storytelling the last 10+ years.  Putting that aside for the moment, consider that your ancestors used to sit around the campfire and tell stories.  Furthermore, our parents lulled us to sleep with stories.  And if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, you’re still clearly captivated by a good story.

Bottom line – unlike Barbie or Lego, stories are not something you outgrow.  Ever.  Therefore, it’s safe to say that stories are also highly effective in a “grown-up”, corporate environment.  Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos swears by them.

The fact that stories are a great way to inspire, motivate and engage others is not new.  In fact, Storytelling is the best way to fire people up.  For better or worse, it propelled # 45 all the way to the White House.

What is new for me is the power of a story to create a desired future reality.  That is, the ability to shape the way people look at something and move them into action to create it.

Here’s how Professor Oettigen’s experiment goes:

Step 1:  Think about a realistic goal that you’d like to achieve.  Spend a few seconds reflecting on that goal and picture a future where you’ve achieved it.

Step 2:  As vividly as possible, picture the obstacles between you and that goal.  Don’t gloss over the negatives.  See them as they truly are or could be.

That’s it.  He called it Mental Contrasting:  Envision a goal; envision the obstacles.

“Pairing the future and present reality makes both simultaneously accessible and links them together in a sense that the reality stands in the way of realizing the desired future.”  The professor discovered that this simple technique worked to trigger significant changes in behavior and motivation

If you’re familiar with coaching, you know this effective contrasting technique isn’t new.  It’s been used for years to improve skills across the board.

I don’t need to tell you that the best goals are driven by motivation from within.  You’re either intrinsically motivated or you’re not (compare self-appointed goal vs. received goal).

However, this experiment shines a light on the motivation that results from looking at “here’s where I’m at” & “here’s where I want to go”.


Shape Perception, Trigger Motivation

The key, according to Coyle, “is establishing this link and consistently creating engagement around it.”  What matters is telling the story.  Consistently and repeatedly.

A story has the power to shape perception and trigger motivation.

Coyle believes that stories go beyond cause and effect right to meaning and purpose – “stories are not just stories; they’re the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.”

If he’s right, a story and a narrative can be used to create a high-purpose environment where “groups are attuned to the same truth.”

Yeah, but even when breaking the law?

Absolutely. Criminals need moral codes just like the rest of us.

“Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal desire but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal.  Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story.”

Beacon 1: Here is where we are.

Beacon 2: Here is where we want to go.

What if Storytelling is the key to creating and sustaining purpose?

Without a doubt, it can help to “Build Safety” and “Share Vulnerability”.  But what this book highlights is how Storytelling should absolutely be used to “Establish Purpose”.  If you want to build a high-performing team, a high-purpose environment is a must-have.

It’s been common knowledge for 20+ years that a good leader must create a shared vision.  But what’s missing from all the Best Leadership Practice is how to leverage Storytelling to focus attention and engagement on the shared vision.  In my opinion, # 44 did this better than anyone.

Watch the “ass-kicking power of a good story”:


From psychology to neuroscience, the findings are conclusive – Storytelling works.  The challenge is knowing how to harness and leverage it.

This article presents a simple, yet powerful approach:  “Here is where we are; here is where we want to go.”

Bottom line – It’s about creating a place where people are attuned to the same truth and connected by the same vision. Image result for al gore vice president

If you’d like to improve this skill, here’s good news – it’s one that can be developed.  Unconvinced? Consider this fact:  Pre-Hollywood, Al Gore was as stiff as a board.  Now he’s got an Oscar.


What’s your take on Storytelling?  How do you harness it?

  • I had trouble reading this article and thought it was unfocused with too many topics, until I read it the fourth time. Finally it flowed and the comments below are my reaction after just reading it again.

    The challenge is: knowing where you want to go or knowing what is the outcome you want to achieve.

    But even this, can be achieved through iterations, picture where you are and where you want to go, and then as you get closer make sure you are still going in the right direction, even if that direction changes slightly. It can become a self fulfilling prophecy, with the right story. It can become a new chapter, rather than a re-write, with the right story.

    Start telling stories. Relay your choices and the choices you want to make. Eventually they will flow as a good story does and eventually you will tell a good story. It’s just practice. It’s life.

    • Thanks for your comment, William. First off, thanks for persevering and reading it 4 times! I’m curious as to what kept you coming back? Also, what specifically made it so hard to digest for you? Anyway, many thanks. Fully agree – knowing the outcome you want is key.

  • Nice one Tim. So true. The motivational power of a good story well and honesty told (and the sharing of vulnerability is so much a part of an interesting and compelling story) can be truly inspirational. After all, who doesn’t make mistakes? Who doesn’t at times feel unsure about what they’re doing? Only characters in boring stories really.

    • Well said. Thx, Greg. Who doesn’t make mistakes. Why not just admit it when it happens. Nothing worse than when a politician refuses to admit wrongdoing when there clearly was. 42 was/is really good at that. 45 was obviously paying close attention to this technique.