The Feel Good Principle: The Science of Storytelling and What’s Missing in Marketing.

We like things that make us feel good.

We avoid stuff that hurts, feels bad, or is painful.

It’s a basic human principle — embrace pleasure, and avoid pain.

This explains why so many of us fail at New Year’s resolutions. Lets be honest, most of us suck at resolutions. Here’s the reason why: they’re usually about things we have shame or feel bad about. You want to lose 30 pounds, get out of debt and publish a best-selling book — all in 60 days. Of course you do.

Yet those same resolutions often come with a giant pile of insecurities. Within a few weeks, that sexy new gym membership goes unused and you can’t get past a second draft outline of your Great American Novel.

Cue feelings of guilt, shame, and failure.

Embrace pleasure, avoid pain.

Sad truth: the more we feel bad, the less we tend to face or engage the subject. While this might make Planet Fitness rich from the 1-year membership contract we can’t get out of, it doesn’t actually facilitate the shift in behavior or thinking we wanted in the first place. Insanity, right?

This has huge implications to the use of storytelling in marketing and change-making work. In fact, it’s been at the heart of my inquiry for the past 12 years. Lately, I’ve begun to connect the dots in all sorts of new ways. I want to share with you what I’ve figured out.


The same desire for pleasure applies to goals. Goals have to be written in a way that makes you say, “I want that because it makes me feels good.” Otherwise, all the rational thinking in the world won’t get you to eat brussel sprouts, run 5 miles a day, or skip your morning latte. The goal itself has to make you feel good, along with a payoff for following through.

In the New York Times Bestseller The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the three-step process for changing a habit. Want to wake up earlier? Anchor it. Step one, set up a cue that triggers your behavior. Step two, create a routine.

Step three? Reward yourself for it.

If you want to change a habit, give yourself a positive reinforcement. Once again, make yourself feel good, not bad, about what you want.

At Get Storied, we call this The Feel Good Principle. If you want to transform how the world thinks about your product, cause, or message, make people feel better about themselves. Without first making them feel like crap!

This flies in the face of what most of us have been taught about marketing.

Invent the disease, give them the cure.

Does this bug you as much as it bugs me?

It’s not really our fault, we’re all following the magic formula we’ve been taught and socialized to use since the dawn of modern advertising.

This is one of the biggest blind spots for marketers, change-agents, and leaders. Especially when you’re making a presentation, selling a product, or leading a transformation.

Both consciously and unconsciously, we use certain patterns to frame our story that make people feel bad — and often times we’re not even aware of it. Then we wonder why we’re not getting the level of engagement, buy-in, or sales that we hoped for!

Most of the stories we tell don’t focus enough on making people feel good.


Reality check: this playbook has been in use by consumer advertising and marketing since World World II and the rise of consumerism. Remind people what they’re missing, lacking, or deficient in. Then give them the cure or pill to make their troubles go away.

Hooray! Your product is the hero. Ahem.

This approach, known as Inadequacy Marketing, preys on people’s vulnerabilities and inherent dissatisfactions of modern life. Some of us celebrate it as Retail Therapy — go buy something expensive and amazingly your troubles/worries/stress will melt away. Of course, this approach doesn’t really work, and comes at a huge cost to our personal and collective wellness.

Inadequacy Marketing is well described in Jonah Sachs 2012 book, Winning The Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell and Live the Best Stories Will Rule the Future: “Since the emergence of modern marketing, professional communicators have relied on the “inadequacy approach.”

“Tell your audience that the world is dangerous, that they lack what they need, that they don’t quite fit in. Then offer the magic cure — your product.” — Jonah Sachs, Wired, 2013.

For far too long, “feel bad marketing” have relied on storytelling tactics that make people feel like sh*t in order to pressure them into needing what one has to sell.

And you wonder why audiences are so cynical and jaded when hearing your message?

Get Storied: StoryU Live, May 2014 in San Francisco

Get Storied: StoryU Live, May 2014 in San Francisco

The storytelling science to make people feel good.

Good news, the latest neuroscience shows how storytelling can change the game.

It turns out the “feel bad marketing” is actually a poor way to approach your audience because it drives up a fight or flight response in their body. When people experience fear, they are less receptive and emotionally available than when they feel relaxed, comfortable, and safe.


Think about the way that you feel at the beginning of a public presentation, when you’re under pressure for a deadline, or when you hear a huge explosion. Your biochemistry gets to work –  adrenaline starts flowing and sweat beads down your back. It’s all driven by cortisol, the stress hormone. A little cortisol (small stress) is sometimes a good thing: it helps us focus, pay attention, and make decisions.

Too much cortisol, however, triggers a fight-or-flight response.

In this extreme stress, like when our ancestors saw a lion, we had to immediately decide whether to run, fight, or freeze.  Except the intensity of our modern living means most of us are already pretty doped up on cortisol from the moment your alarm goes off in the morning, to your obsessive checking of email on your smart phone, to wrestling with your morning commute. And it’s not even 9am, yet.

In contrast, the feel-good hormone is oxytocin.

Think about the way you feel after an incredible meal, OMG! sex, or an experience of profound delight. That happy high is a chemical released into our bloodstream, oxytocin, and it makes us feel good and relaxed. Oxytocin is the connection hormone: when you feel a sense of belonging, nurturing, and community — that’s oxytocin dancing through your veins.


At the Future of Storytelling conference last year in New York City, Dr. Zak shared research on how these hormones play out in our response to specific stories.

In mapping classical dramatic arcs in storytelling, he explains how these narrative arcs evoke particular neurochemical responses in our brains — specifically in relation to cortisol and oxytocin.


Stories that contain the classic rise-and-fall create feelings of distress and empathy in the audience.

More specifically, when the audience feels tension or distress at the moment of challenge in the story, their body releases cortisol. Later, as the narrative arc begins to tie the pieces of the story together, our bodies release oxytocin — the feel good hormone.

On a whole, good stories literally make us feel good.

(Blair Witch Project being the exception to the rule…)

A better way to influence and inspire others

If your goal is to potentially inspire new thinking, influence people’s perceptions, and engage new behaviors — does it logically make sense to engage your audience in a fight-or-flight response?

Rather than introduce stress and fear, driving up the fight-or-flight reaction in your audience, storytelling that inspires change needs to follow a different approach.


Based on the research on hormones and habits, and as we experience with every new year’s resolution we’ve made and failed to keep, we know that making people feel bad — no matter how right we are — isn’t the best way to influence or encourage change.

The mistake here is that while logical thinking can occur, decisions don’t happen inside of a rational vacuum. People behave based on their feelings. If you set up a situation where the right answer is presented, but you make people feel bad, it doesn’t matter that you’re right.

What matters is that you just made them feel bad.


When setting up your story, start with a framework that makes people feel good. In order to create storytelling that inspires action, begin with the goal of establishing safety (emotional and cognitive safety of relevance and lack of judgement).

Only after you’ve created an environment of safety — priming people to be open, receptive, and engaged — should you then introduce discomfort, challenge, or creative tension. This challenge engages the right level of cortisol: enough to create emotional excitement, heightened awareness, and curiosity, but not enough to instigate a fight-or-flight response.

This is what we call the “Feel Good Sandwich.”

Lead with oxytocin, the feel-good hormone — which sets up an environment of safety where you validate your audience’s reality and help them identify with something positive they want.

Once the context is set, activate a small amount of cortisol. Do this by introducing a conflict, a challenge, or dilemma. Some obstacle the character in your story needs to overcome (and your audience identifies with).

It turns out that cortisol — in controlled amounts — can be a good stress hormone that engages people in focus, empathy, and emotional response. Stories involve conflict or creative tension — enough so that we focus and pay attention.

Finally, sandwich your story with a second warm slice of oxytocin, with a resolution that brings it back to the sweet feeling of happiness. Now in the context of transformational storytelling, that doesn’t always mean “happy ending”. It can be as simple as an invitation for your audience to continue on the journey with you — the message that they can be part of a tribe or community that acts on the same things they care about.

In plain English? To inspire people to act, tell stories that follow this clear pattern: embrace them with a context they can relate to, introduce a conflict or dilemma, and bring back a second dose of good feelings, reminding them of what we can do together.


Marketing today needs to adapt to a new environment and make people feel good through stories that have resonance and relevance. Rather than adding to our already over-stressed lives, the stories that stick will add to our lives in ways that make us feel good.

This is one of the reasons why so many innovators, entrepreneurs, and even marketers aren’t getting the results that they want — why the story is lost in translation.

As storytellers, it’s not enough to have the right information, and it’s not about creating conditions of scarcity or fear. Storytelling that leads to meaningful change requires a deeper look at human habits, and our patterns of marketing communications.

What stories work? What stories resonate? Are we unconsciously sabotaging ourselves by using an approach to storytelling that actually works against us?

These are the questions that have been at the core of our decade long research at Get Storied. Why do some ideas stick while most get lost in translation? How do you create large-scale behavior change? Are we telling the right stories for the future we want to create?

What if our habits for storytelling needs to change?

Stories are by definition values-laden. That is they deliver a message that elicits reaction, meaning, and feeling. Your audience either accepts or rejects, either identifies or doesn’t with the story at hand.

Stories were easy to tell when the world was simple. The shaman, the elder, or the priest could simply explain how the world worked through a set of stories that everyone in the culture knew.

Today, everyone’s becoming a storyteller. And yet a more complex world means more complex stories. Where worldviews and value-systems collide – and meaning is left up for interpretation. When it comes to the values expressed through our story, there are ways we sabotage how the gift of our message is received.

In short — we often make people feel bad — without even realizing it.

For years, I’ve wrestled with this puzzle, trying to crack the code and explain it to others. I’m thrilled to say, I’ve got a lot to share with you that breaks these patterns down systematically, and teaches you a whole new approach to storytelling for sustained impact.

Stick around, if you care about behavior change, tipping points, and innovation adoption.

We are going to be sharing more insights and show you some of our research in advance of our next online class at StoryU, Undeniable Story, coming this Fall in the first week of October.

In the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at how the discipline of storytelling must evolve and what’s the blindspot that’s affecting your marketing. There’s even a 6-step storytelling framework I want to share with you that I think can significantly address the gap.

How do you feel about Inadequacy Marketing? When does a traditional storytelling approach work in the world of business and when does it ring hollow? What about large-scale behavior change are you most interested in? Add your comments and questions below.  

36 thoughts on “The Feel Good Principle: The Science of Storytelling and What’s Missing in Marketing.”

  1. MyLinda Butterworth

    I found this article intriguing about how science has shown how stories effect us and how using story in business can be effective.

  2. This makes so much sense. Today’s consumer is so much more empowered than in the past. We don’t want to be shamed or browbeaten into our purchases – we want to feel inspired and in control. Great article, Michael!

    1. So glad to hear, Maggie – in the next post, we’re going to explore 3 game-changing trends that is reshaping the relationship between institutions/brands and individuals, and how to align your communication strategy to these big disruptive opportunities.

  3. How do I feel about Inadequacy Marketing? Not so good. I do my best to avoid that approach and aim for communication that inspires (big nod to John Marshall Roberts here). But it’s hard to do well. I need a mentor 🙂 I’m soooo looking forward to StoryU.

  4. Christina Rasmussen

    I remember once someone telling me that I solve peoples problems too fast by making them feel good. And that I need to remind my audience of how big their problem is. I never agreed or understood this need to do this to our world. Thank you for writing this. It reflects my soul.

    1. Christina – It’s actually what makes you so special, inspiring, and meaningful in so many people’s lives. Stay true to you.

      I also hate focusing on the problem and the need to “break people down” before you should build them back up. That said, I have come to appreciate the need to describe a creative tension or dilemma which gives the juice story, although only after getting an audience excited about the possibilities. Cause reality is, despite lots of opportunities for all of us, there’s the hard rub of life, and breaking through old habits, patterns, etc…to be able to live from the new story that we seek or desire most.

  5. This is a fantastic post, thanks Michael. My journey in storytelling is viewed through the lens of performance/slam poetry. Most of my poems are designed to inspire change in people and convey some sort of social or environmental change message. Unlike many of my peers who simply rant from the stage, I now realise I have always structured my work around the “Feel Good Sandwich” principles, but never really thought to label it as such. A good story is so much more palatable and memorable. Thanks for the beautiful analogy!

    1. Rock on Ali! Would love to hear some your performance/slam poetry. It’s a real art and soul’s practice to meet those challenging/difficult subjects from a place of love and possibility. Sounds like you’re on that journey. Thank you for that!

  6. Thank you for your work and for speaking about the “feel good” priniciple. I think you are totally right on. Bad news is debilitating us. Earlier this year, our social enterprise BALANCE Edutainent updated our mission statement – we produce nutritious children’s entertainment that kids love and parents can “feel good” about.

    I really appreciated your explanation of the “feel good” sandwich. It’s what we are doing but you’ve added the hormones to it. I am finding it more and more important to understand the science these days! It’s an important differentiator.

    Finally, I think you will appreciate this feel good video – our first with animated Pacha – which launches a “feel good” activity for kids 🙂 It is featured in the epilogue of our forthcoming animated book when Pacha brings what she has learned in the dreamworld into real life.

    We will soon launch a Kickstarter with pajamas and the animated book.

    1. Congratulations David! Can see how this continues to evolve in exciting ways. I loved the video —especially from 1:39 forward. The challenge with a “feel good” message is that if it seems too Pollyanna or touchie-feelie, you loose a lot of people cause it doesn’t acknowledge the grit of life as well. After 1:39, you really had me, cause the story went from “cute” to “dope”. Does that make sense?

      1. Yep that does make sense. When the book launches, we are going to do a remix of the video that jumps past the animation to kids across the planet rocking out. Thanks for your feedback 🙂

  7. In a world where we’re told to unabashedly “speak our truth” and “be authentic,” I
    love that you’re teaching how to carefully craft those messages, so they hit home
    with others AND support how we want to be perceived.

    Many cheers, Michael!
    Thanks again.

  8. Great article, Michael – love your insights.
    While there’s no doubt that the arc works at the individual level, I can’t help wondering how this might be applicable to the global brain too. The big ideas I’m grappling with now are how these ideas can be applied to a group of people, a larger community and ultimately to every connected individual (it worked in ancient communities like the Khoisan people whose only connecting technology was cave painting).

    It certainly is exciting times we’re living in, and I love that you challenge us with your ideas!

    1. Hi Michael – Great question! I’m curious about the same thing. Which is why StoryU and our next course, Undeniable Story, is going to focus exactly on that — how to shift the story at a group level. Exciting times indeed.

  9. Pingback: The Feel Good Principle: How Hormones, Habits, and Behavior Affect Storytelling | EnterprisePersonalization

  10. Great article Michael! I’ve never liked the idea of Inadequacy marketing, but I didn’t know there was another way of looking at it. This article is so helpful.

    1. Hi Michael – yes! There is a way through, it’s what we’re going to break down in the unfolding series. Thanks for continuing to inspire me in my own writing and inquiry. Love your Forbes series on business relationship building in the digital age.

  11. Thank you for pinpointing this for me. I recently found myself very angry after a sales call in which the marketer insisted on telling me how inadequate the advertising product we use is, in spite of the fact that we’re very satisfied with it and have over some years invested quite a bit into it. After hanging up, I looked up the product’s website, which was badly written, and found that their starting price point was TEN times more than our current spend. Inadequacy marketing at its very worst.

    1. Oy! That sounds terrible. We so often forget that everyone gets to tell their own story. So the story of your relationship to your existing product is YOURS to tell. Imagine, if we all came to appreciate what is our story to tell or not? I try to remind myself of that all time, especially in romantic relationship. 😉

  12. Great article Michael. Long time no speak my storytelling friend. I have been working with stories in brand marketing for over 6 years now and your insights keep surprising me, in feel good way! Keep in touch.

    1. Always great to hear from you Raf! Hope you can come play in the new sandlot and learning community that we’re revamping and launching in the coming weeks. Your wisdom and insights would be greatly welcomed.

  13. Pingback: Feeling Good to Do Good | ARC Communications

  14. This article itself is a perfect story sandwich with a great accent of hormonal condiments. After attending NYC Story U, I realized it is impossible to improve or add much to GS insights. The content and experience were fantastic, but finished. I was wrong. The story goes on. Does this response qualify with healthy mix of oxytocin and cortisol?
    Very interested in tribal stories- how they are created, told and transformed.

    1. Thanks Ron! Glad you enjoyed the sandwich. The story always goes on. Just the tip of the iceberg so far. Tribal stories! Love that. We’ll definitely break that down in the future from the StoryU perspective. In the meantime, check out Primal Branding by Hanlon and anything by Grant McCracken, my favorite business anthropologist.

  15. I am grateful to be tapping into this post. I did, however, take notes on classical dramatic arcs. Whoops! This post also challenged me to not feed into the drama of my own story–home foreclosure due to Catholic guilt. If StoryU can (and certainly will) help me make that a feel good story, consider us miracle workers! :>)

    1. Hi Mary Jane – It’s amazing the stories that we take on as our own (i.e. Catholic guilt…which is my favorite kissing cousin to Jewish guilt)…and that we have a choice to change the script. Yes, StoryU helps unlock that code. Grateful to have you on the journey with us.

  16. Wonderful piece. I’ve experienced a tension between sales and marketing (tech B2B anyway) in how they want to story-tell. I, the marketer, want to talk about how amazing this thing is, and how amazing you’ll be with it; the salesman has this belief that he must identify the *problem,* or the *pain point* the customer has. A good salesman is able to make the customer realize he doesn’t even see the full extent of the problem! If he is to be the hero, the customer must be like some damsel in distress. I’ve seen amazing skill some salespeople have at making the customer feel vulnerable or inadequate. It’d be interesting to build a sales model off of *this* approach, how to systematically engage a way that sells through making the customer/audience feel good/secure, rather than bad/insecure.

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