The science of story building

Matt Sheehan at the 2017 Key Executives Mega-Conference
Matt Sheehan at the 2017 Key Executives Mega-Conference
Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis / SNPA

Professors at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications are going beyond just teaching reporting skills. They are currently researching the psychology and physiology of storytelling, according to Matt Sheehan, who spoke at the 2017 Key Executives Mega-Conference in Orlando.

As director of stories and emerging platforms at the College, Sheehan is spearheading efforts to examine the intersection of storytelling, science and the social good. He leads a content and product incubator called "Hatch" that uses the principles of human-centered design to conceptualize, test and launch projects for the future of media and information.

"Storytelling is an art, not a checklist," he said to attendees at the Friday afternoon breakout session. "I'm giving you a headline view of the research we find fascinating."

Sheehan said researchers had gathered a dozen scholars from multiple disciplines to discuss storytelling. They discovered most people are familiar with a story arc and with basic story plots, which are overcoming monsters, rags to riches, the quest, voyages and returns, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.

"The audience brings a lot of themselves into stories they are reading," said Sheehan. "There are biases in stories, but not necessarily from whom you think. It's often the audience's bias that gets in the way."

Sheehan played excerpts from a National Public Report that stated people's brains are "hardwired" to adopt someone else's opinions as their own.

Sheehan said there are two theories that are in conflict with each other, and researchers have not found a resolution.

He described the "tale of two theories" as (1) people are rational and need more information to be motivated or (2) people are irrational and they don't respond to facts that go against their cultural norms.

Research also has shown that emotion is a critical component in storytelling. People tend to remember what happened after they read a story with an emotional trigger.

"Joy opens our minds. Humor also brings people in," said Sheehan. "They are great storytelling techniques."

Empathy is an important technique for bringing people into a story. A strong example, Sheehan said, was last year's photo of a young child being washed up on shore as Syrian refugees were trying to flee.

"People weren't interested in Syrian Civil War until that photo of a young child washed up on shore," he said. "Many had small children themselves and could empathize with the heartbroken parents.

"Allow your audience to see themselves in your story ... make room for them," Sheehan advised. "Think about the artist Frida Kahlo and how she posed herself in her own paintings. She expressed herself with little emotion, which allowed viewers to see themselves in her work or in her."

Sheehan said he would be releasing a white paper about the story building research later this summer, and he invited conference attendees to contact him through the website or follow him on Twitter @MattSheehan #storyscience.