top of page

The Top 3 Cognitive Secrets Behind Storytelling

Are you wired for story? Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brains are hardwired to respond to story, which means that if we know the cognitive secrets behind effective storytelling we can upgrade how we communicate in our respective industries.

According to Lisa Cron, a former literary agent and storytelling consultant for Warner Bros, “We all think in story, which allows us to envision the future.” With this in mind, I recently taught a workshop at my company about how communications specialists can apply these cognitive secrets to storytelling in the defense industry, based on lessons from Cron’s popular book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.

In this article, I will share three cognitive secrets from Cron’s book, explain how each cognitive concept can be applied to storytelling in general, and then demonstrate its applications in the defense industry in particular. Alright then, let’s dive right in:

Cognitive Secret #1: We think in story, which allows us to envision the future.

Story Secret: From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next.

Defense Application: Grab the readers’ attention by telling them what is at stake.

Real World Example: I recently attended a ransomware workshop hosted by the National Cybersecurity of Excellence (NCCoE) in which one of the speakers, a chief security officer, started his presentation with a question: “Do you know what keeps me up at night?” A chilling hook, indeed. The speaker went on to talk about how beyond stealing data, he was concerned about malicious actors modifying data, the technical implications of this, and the solutions cybersecurity professionals could implement to protect themselves from this danger.

Cognitive Secret #2: We don’t think in the abstract; we think in specific images.

Story Secret: Anything conceptual, abstract, or general must be made tangible.

Defense Application: Anchor abstract security concepts with specific, vivid examples.

Real World Example: A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal published a feature section on cybersecurity with compelling stories that rooted technical information with memorable, real-life examples and even characters who played key roles in resolving major attacks. That’s the kind of material that sticks in people’s minds.

Cognitive Secret #3: From birth, our brain’s primary goal is to make causal connections (if this, then that).

Story Secret: A story follows a cause-and-effect trajectory from start to finish.

Defense Application: Structure stories about security around action, reaction, and decision.

Real World Example: In recent years, as the world returns to the great power competition, this story concept is particularly relevant for discussing nuclear threats and arms control. Instead of portraying a mindless cloud of arms racing, defense communicators can portray an action-reaction cycle in the face of adversary developments on a global scale.

Our brains learn by making causal connections. If you want to make an impact through your communications, it’s worth your time to study the secrets outlined in Cron’s book to ensure your material will hook and hold your readers’ attention. Do this right and your story can create instant rapport and inspire your audience to take meaningful action.

Learn more:

* * *

About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

To sign up for the (In)Security Blog newsletter and receive notification of the memoir release, click here.


bottom of page