We are wired to be inspired. Here's the science to prove it

An undeniable force

It is an exhilarating moment when we discover a Big Audacious Meaning. There is an indescribable energy. There is not much that is rational about it. But it is undeniably powerful. More powerful than just about anything else we experience in our careers. The reason is simple. A Big Audacious Meaning connects to our very core, igniting that dormant need to feel like what we do is making a difference.


The unavoidable erosion

Once we have identified our Big Audacious Meaning, something inevitably happens. The rational side of us wants to get in on the action. It’s not unusual to want to start citing facts and figures to help prove the validity of our belief. In some cases, doubt creeps in and we worry that our Big Audacious Meaning may threaten our ability to be taken seriously.

So we build a case.

It’s important to give our belief an acid test. It’s important to gather the quantitative proof. It helps us confidently and boldly push forward, knowing we have unassailable proof to dispel the criticisms of anyone who would take shots at us. But, too often, we let this overwhelm the magic we all felt when we discovered the Big Audacious Meaning.

We find our storytelling gets reduced to statistics and rational arguments. We may even believe that our facts and figures are so compelling that they give us a free pass from having to navigate the messy human stuff. We tell ourselves that the numbers speak for themselves. And that they’re quantifiable. No need to negotiate the decidedly squishier terrain of all that inspiring human story stuff.

Thus, the erosion starts. Our Big Audacious Meaning begins to feel not all that inspiring. And we can’t seem to get anyone else excited about it. It doesn’t feel so undeniable anymore.

Science to the rescue

I could argue that you just need to believe. I could give you an inspiring pep talk about the Big Audacious Meaning and the need to tell inspiring human stories. But sometimes we need to battle the rational with the rational. So we turn to science.

There is some enlightening research demonstrating the power of pushing past rational narratives and tapping into the irresistible power of emotional storytelling.

For starters, there are the findings of Wharton School marketing professor Deborah Small. Here is an overview from a post on the Institute for Public Relations website:

...statistics and facts drain us of all empathy.  Her research compared the willingness of subjects to donate when they had three different options. The first was a story about an individual with a name (a little girl named Rokia) and photo and no statistics at all. The second was a set of statistics showing the magnitude of the problem and how badly they need donations. And the third combined the story and the statistics as a combination of narrative and fact. The lone story of the single individual always beat any version that included statistics or sets of facts.

The post goes on to cite research from psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

This fits with research from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wherein he identified and named a bias the “simulation heuristic.” He discovered that if you more readily imagine a scenario or picture it, you weight it more heavily and think it to be more true than a conceptual or factual version.

The research of psychologist Raymond Mar helps shed light on how this happens.

He’s discovered as we read text, our brain simulates the real world aspects triggered by the text—in our brain we simulate what we read about–we can hear, smell, feel and even mimic motion.  His later studies found a correlation between those who are more avid readers of fiction with a greater capacity for empathy. He hypothesizes that reading fiction exercises the unique human ability to mirror what others think and feel and thus build empathy.

And then there is how, ultimately, emotional storytelling builds empathy. It’s described in the research of assistant professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute Uri Hasson.

Hasson, assistant professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, sought to discover whether humans generate mirror neurons during storytelling. Hasson tracked their brain patterns and found the listener’s brain did indeed mirror the teller, but at a slight delay. Then, as the story evolved, the listener mirrored the storyteller synchronously with no delay. Finally, and here’s the Vulcan “Mind Meld” part—the listener’s brain started accurately mirroring the teller’s brain before the teller got to that part of the story. They were truly on the same wave length. Hasson calls this “neural coupling.”  Neural coupling demonstrates the power of narrative to trigger an empathetic simulation in the listener’s brain.

Amplifying the Big Audacious Meaning

A Big Audacious Meaning captures something incredibly valuable. A purpose that inspires us, gives us hope, and makes us want to be the best version of ourselves. It needs to be amplified in human stories that connect with us in ways that the facts and figures simply cannot touch.

We have to find the courage to consistently keep these stories front and center. It’s too easy to take for granted. Or to devalue because their impact isn’t as easily measured as the more functional parts of the business.

As the research shows, we are wired to be inspired. We are waiting for those stories that only a Big Audacious Meaning can deliver.

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.

PurposeDan Salva