5 Unbelievable Neurohacks to Up Your Storytelling Game

You probably think that, for the most part, you’re totally in control of your own behavior. You’re a logical person who weighs the facts and then acts rationally. Ya, I used to think that too.

The reality is that we only understand a fraction of all that affects our behavior. We’re far more rationalizing than we are rational. And we’re driven by emotion far more than we’d care to admit.

Understanding these hidden things that affect our behavior can offer some "neurohacks" that you can then use to get your stories seen.

Before we dive into the neurohacks, I first need to share just how powerful some of these ideas are, and how little we often understand our own behavior.

Back in 1996 John Bargh gathered a room of university students together and handed out a bunch of surveys. For this particular study, the survey questions themselves were totally bogus. Bargh didn’t care about how people responded. Why? He was more interested in a different kind of response to a survey—a physical one that happened after the fact.

In half of the surveys the questions contained words related to being old. Think of words like “retire,” “Florida” and “Bingo.” The other half of the surveys were otherwise the same, except they didn’t have any of these words associated with old age.

So if he didn’t care about their answers, what did he care about? As random as it may sound, he wanted to see how long it would take the study participants to walk down the hall after completing the survey.

Lo and behold, those who had surveys containing the “old” words actually exited and walked down the hall at a slower pace.

They had no idea that they were walking slower. No one intended to walk slowly down the hall; it just happened.

When I first read this study it sounded like a bit of a stretch. Words related to being old are hidden in a survey and folks walk slower when they leave…?

To make sure they really were on to something, the experimenters tried again. This time participants were primed with words associated with rudeness and hostility, followed by a delay in the experiment.

They were testing to see how long it would take for the participant to interrupt the experimenter and ask for an explanation, or to request things get moving. And here again they found that those primed with the words associated with being rude would interrupt much quicker than those who had not.

Crazy, right?!?!

As I dove deeper into the research, I learned that there are so many things that affect our behavior, things that we never even realize.

Learn and understand these neurohacks and you can use them to help you—and your storytelling.

5 unbelievable—yet true—neurohacks for the storyteller. #filmmaker

1. Want your creative proposal to be taken more seriously?

Print it out on heavier paper.

This one may seem odd but it comes from the field of embodied psychology. It's the idea that a lot of our metaphor in language is rooted in real experience.

In the English language words and phrases associated with weight ("light-hearted," "being weighed down," "carrying a lot of weight on my shoulders") are thought to be grave or serious. A group of researchers tested this weight-seriousness hypothesis with resumes. They asked people to evaluate a candidate based on her resume. The resumes were all identical, though some reviewers received it on a light-weight clipboard, while others received it on a rather heavy clipboard.

Those who received the resumes on the heavy clipboard rated the candidate as being better qualified for and more serious about the position.

It didn't change the reviewers' perception of any other qualities–just those related to the applicant's performance and seriousness.

In another study, participants were handed a book and asked to estimate how heavy it was. Half of them were told that it was an important book. Those who were told it was important were the ones who estimated it as being significantly heavier.

There is a deep connection between weight and importance. 

When it comes to your creative, if you’re ever printing something for a client meeting–whether that be an initial pitch, storyboards, or even your pricing structure–make sure you print it on heavy-weight paper. This ensures it'll be taken more seriously.

If you happen to deliver any physical products with what you offer, remember that the heavier it is, the more important it will feel.

Personally, I've embraced this in my pursuit of making really solid Old Fashioneds at home. I'm more of a novice but with the help of my exceptionally heavy cocktail glasses, most of my friends think I'm much more serious about what I'm in serving them. :)

2. Want your work to be well perceived?

Set up your work well. It isn’t what it is, it is what you say it is. We often think that our work speaks for itself. We think that we can invite the client in, show them a cut, and they’ll see what we see. Or, at least, we think that they’ll see it exactly for what it is. Thus far though, I'm sure you're already starting to see just how subjective reality really is.

This next insight comes from a popular experiment done by Dan Ariely (the author of the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational). He and his team wanted to test the influence of expectations on our experience of something.

The study was rather straightforward. They conducted a beer taste test on the MIT campus. One of the beers was a new MIT Brew, and chief among that beer's ingredients is balsamic vinegar. Now, if you’re not a beer drinker it’s important to note that balsamic vinegar does not make it a better beer.

What his team wanted to test was whether being told about the vinegar mattered to the participants. And if it did matter to participants, researchers wanted to know if it mattered when you were told about the vinegar.

Now remember, all the participants are drinking the same thing. If we are as rational as we believe, we should taste the same liquid, and rate it the same regardless of what we're told about it. The beer itself isn’t changing, after all.

That said, there was certainly a large difference between those who were told it was a special new brew, and those who were also told about the special ingredient. Those who were told about the vinegar rated it much worse.

Simple so far. But here’s the twist.

The researchers wanted to test whether it would matter if they told the students about the balsamic vinegar before or after they tried the beer. It’s the same beer, and the same information, so we might guess that the participants would rate it the same way whether told about the vinegar before trying, or after.

Instead, the researchers found that being told about the vinegar only made a difference if students were told about it before they drank the beer. If they were told about the vinegar after they’d tasted it, their ratings were much higher, as if the presence of the vinegar didn’t really matter.

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Here's how we apply this understanding to our own filmmaking practices:

When you show a film, it's like the vinegar in the beer: it's the same for everyone. But what can heavily influence the clients' enjoyment of your work is what you say—and that you say it before they watch the film.

I’m not suggesting saying anything disingenuous or misleading. Rather, talk passionately about what you love about the subject, about the thought that went into the story, and all the great things you see in the film. Sharing this up front will help them see these same things too.

And remember, this is huge when you’re meeting with prospective clients as well. The website where folks view your work is another great opportunity to set expectations. The setup of your videos plays a massive role in how your work is perceived. And perception is all about what you say, and when you say it.

3. What commands more authority?

As filmmakers, this one is likely the most intuitive to us as we apply it to our camera angles. There is a deep connection between height and size to the perceived power.

When it comes to shooting, we'll often shoot up on a person to make him look larger and bestow him with authority. This simulates how a child would look up to a parent. Conversely, we shoot down on someone to minimize him or make him look smaller.

There are quite a few common examples of this in our everyday language:

  • she was looking down on him
  • he looked up to his father
  • she's working under that girl over there
  • he's climbing the corporate ladder

There have been quite a few studies that have looked at this relationship, but I'll share one that I found particularly interesting.

Imagine being given a simple company organizational chart to represent the structure of a make-believe company. Five boxes along the bottom with only a single box above.


Two versions of this chart were made with the only difference being the length of the vertical line from the bottom and top boxes–either 0.8 inches or 2.6 inches long.

This is all that the participants were given. They were then asked to rate the manager (which is really just a small picture of a person in a small box) on a few characteristics related to his power, as well as an evaluation of his charisma.

The ratings on charisma weren't affected by the length of the center line—but it did affect the perception of power. The manager with the longer vertical line was perceived as being more powerful than the one with the shorter line.

This one even worked in reverse! Folks were given descriptions of managers and then asked to draw the organizational chart. Those who were given a description of something that sounded more powerful drew a longer line and placed them higher.

One study even got Canadians to rate the height of politicians before and after the election (I'll resist the urge for a Trump joke here). Brian Mulroney, who won, was judged as taller after he won. Those who lost were deemed as shorter after the election.


And what's even crazier, the average CEO height is about 1.5" taller than the overall average height for men.

All of this might explain why Tom Cruise is apparently incredibly strategic about ensuring he's filmed to look taller than his actual 5'7" stature.

Okay, you get the point. How do you apply it?

Remember that we naturally link height to power. So try not to jump to conclusions if you have somebody short on your crew. And stand tall any time you need to present to your team and be the leader.

4. Want to always come off as warm?

This one is so wild.

Imagine you're showing up for an experiment. You meet the person conducting the interview in the elevator, before heading up to the fourth floor. His hands are full, as he juggles papers, a clipboard, and a beverage. He asks if you might be able to help out by holding his drink.

Of course, you're happy to oblige.

You reach the fourth floor, head into a room, and then you sit down and are asked to read the description of someone called Person A. After reading that aloud, you then rate how you feel about Person A. Ten questions that all get at how warm or cold you think the person is–things such as "strong" or "weak," "honest" or "dishonest."

Here's the wild part: in all versions of the experiment the person who participants met on the elevator and what he said to those participants was the same. Furthermore, the description of Person A is always identical. The only thing that changed was the temperature of the beverage the participant was asked to hold on the way in.

Those who were asked to hold a warm cup of coffee rated Person A as more generous, good-natured, and caring than those who were handed an iced coffee. That is bananas.

This one has a couple applications.

If you’re meeting with a client in your space for the first time (a time when you and the client are getting to know each other), it's a great idea to offer a nice warm tea or coffee.

More than that though, consider these implications for your story. Consider what this means when you're conducting an interview for a film. Here we have a situation in which it’s critical that the person being interviewed connects and feels safe with the interviewer. This is so critical and yet often we begin the experience by getting him or her a nice cold glass of water. Instead, rather than ice water, offer warm water, tea, or coffee. These will help you be seen as warmer, and that goes such a long way in getting a better interview.

By the way, this one works especially well when paired with soft and smooth surfaces—think of the chair that the interviewee sits in. As you might guess by now, they’ll help the person feel softer and less rough. Two things that are hugely helpful in an interview.

5. Want to create a Carnegie Hall or a subway?

This relates to our second above but this one is much grander. The much broader experience we create isn’t just important, it’s essential if we want our work to be perceived the right way.

Consider the Pulitzer Prize-winning experiment by the Washington Post known as Pearls Before Breakfast. They took one of the world's best violinists, a man by the name of Joshua Bell, and asked him to play publicly at no charge.

If you’re not a fan of classical music it’s important to understand that Joshua Bell is massively talented and can sell out places like Carnegie Hall. His violin (the same one he played on that day) is worth a couple of million dollars.

So effectively they’re taking one of the world's best violinists, equipping him with some of the best tools, and then having him play publicly for free. The catch? He was going to play in a Washington DC subway, at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. And he was going to look like anybody else you might expect to find playing music there at that time, as in he wasn’t dressed up in a tux.

So what happened?

Nobody noticed. Everybody just walked on by. One of the world’s best musicians playing for free, and folks are just walking on by. After a few hours he made about $40 in donations.

It’s not that his music wasn’t as good that day. Rather, this experiment speaks to the incredible power of experience, the context in which the story is felt. Everybody who heard Joshua that day was in a busy subway on a Monday morning. They weren’t expecting world-class music. And all of their surroundings suggested they wouldn’t be hearing world-class music.

And so for them, that day, they didn’t.

This is huge.

It doesn’t matter how good your film is—if you play it in a subway everybody will walk on by. We need to ask ourselves about the experience we’re creating and make sure that it’s far more like Carnegie Hall than a subway station.

The converse is also true. Had Joshua been playing in Carnegie Hall that day and wasn’t feeling well and his music was rather off, the audience would have been much more likely to not notice it, and to perceive it as one of his best performances. That’s the power of our expectations and the experience.

As an interesting aside, you may know some people locally whose business is going really well but whose work you think somewhat resembles rubbish. It can be confusing to see work that feels subpar yet the person is so busy and charging high rates. But if he or she is setting up the work well and creating a stellar experience, that’s certainly going lend itself to clients seeing far more in the work that's created.

As everything we’ve shared here suggests, it is far more about the experience and expectations you create than what it is you’re actually showing. Ideally, both are intentional and moving, but we can’t forgo one in pursuit of the other.

And if we, like most creatives out there, focus solely on the work and nothing else, well then we may just find ourselves in a situation like Joshua Bell. Sharing our best work, playing our heart out, yet nobody is paying any attention.