PART 5 of 11 | This series highlights practical approaches to leveraging game mechanics in business and eLearning design.

LENGTH: 6.5 minutes (1332 words)

In my last post I talked about the “sensory supply chain” which illustrates how sensory information is processed and transported through our brains. In the next seven posts, I will share how seven fundamental game mechanics can activate neural highways in this supply chain. Practically speaking, this will impact our ability to shape our audience’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, and ultimately influence their behaviour.

Why are game mechanics critical to our success? Because they produce chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters such as dopamine. These neurotransmitters act as fearless postmen who will deliver any messages we send. The postmen deposit the messages into actionable, long term memory.

We already know success is contingent upon forming a connection with our audience. We learned in the last post, that our first step to increasing engagement, learning and behaviour is to get approval from our crocodile brain (the amygdala). The only way we can get the crocodile’s attention is by charging at its emotions. At a primitive level. We need to do one of five things; scare it, show it something attractive, satiate its hunger, stimulate sexual arousal, or offer it something truly novel or unusual. One of the best ways to do this is to use narrative or storytelling. Narrative is a basic game mechanic used by all successful game designers.

One of the first things a game designer does is create a “hook”. This is basically a pitch to the audience. It’s your opportunity to let them decide whether they will pay attention to what you have to say or filter you out. Appeal to your audience’s’ desire for purpose and meaning. Show them what’s in it for them. Instructional Designers call this the “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me). If you are an educator or business leader, skip the objectives slide. Instead, create a compelling statement or question which incorporates your learning objectives. Think of yourself as a marketer making a sales pitch.

We know that people who form a strong emotional connection with the content will recall more. Perhaps more importantly, they will have a much stronger desire to take action.

The power of storytelling

Narrative is one of the oldest forms of sharing knowledge. Think of the millions of stories we tell to our children every day. Not only do they entertain, but they have the power to influence and transform young minds. Never Cry Wolf, The Little Engine That Could, and Oh The Places You’ll Go are three classic examples. What exactly makes them such powerful teaching tools?

Never cry wolf : A bored boy tending sheep cried “Wolf!” to get attention. He did it again and people came. A third time and the Boy was ignored. Goodbye flock. Goodbye boy.

LESSON: A liar will not be believed, even when telling the truth.

The Little Engine That Could: A train is stranded at the bottom of a mountain and needs an engine that can pull it to the other side. While pulling the train up the mountain, the Little Engine repeats the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can…”. Eventually, the Little Engine pulls the train successfully over the mountain.

LESSON: Believe in yourself and anything is achievable.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss: A boy heads out into the world on his own. As he goes through his ups and downs, Dr. Seuss’s rhymes offer encouragement and advice on how to handle each situation. The author seamlessly weaves motivational empowerment with a fun and engaging story, summarized in this line:

You’re on your own. And you know what you know.  And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

LESSON: If you do not like where you are, pick a route and keep going. No matter what happens or where you are, you should always keep moving,  progression and effort are the most important things.

Attention spans and emotion

Research shows that attention spans are linked to the level of emotional connection with the learning activity. It’s the reason why fans can sit through a 12 hour Star Trek marathon, yet most people daydream during a conference call. When it comes to learning & long term memory, one of the most important areas of the brain is the limbic system. Neuroimaging, shows that information must pass through the amygdala to reach the hippocampus, from where it can be sent to long term memory for storage. But why does that matter?

6 ways to boost your audience’s emotional connection with your content

Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist, states, “students must care about the information or consider it important for it to get through the limbic system expeditiously, form new synaptic connections and be stored as long term memory. In other words, memories with personal meaning are more likely to become long term memories and available for later retrieval. It’s this reaction that gives ‘fun’ it’s pleasurable and addictive qualities and makes us want to repeat the experience which triggered it.Let’s look at six ways to increase your audience’s emotional connection with your content. 

1. Create your hook

Give your audience a reason to pay attention. Weave learning objectives into a “what’s in it for me statement” (WIIFM). In addition, start with a question, but don’t answer it right away. Your content should naturally progress and build toward a resolution.

2. Enable your audience to imagine themselves performing desired actions

Use scenario based learning, involve your audience as much as possible. Consider asking questions rather than making statements. For example, rather than stating a fact, such as 1 in 3 children suffer from obesity, turn it into a question. Ask, “how many American children suffer from obesity?” You may reveal the answer right away, or naturally build to the answer through your content. You could even take this a step further with eLearning by giving your audience multiple options to select from.

3. Use personal pronouns

This builds on the previous point. Draw your audience in to your narrative. Use “you” and “your” to help them feel engaged and visualize themselves performing the desired actions.

4. Bullets are for shootouts, not slide-decks

What was the last noteworthy article you read? Was it motivational? Was it related to business, a hobby, something else? Perhaps it was about a unique event happening in the world. Regardless of the topic, it likely contained some factual information. When you think of these facts, did the author list them in bullet form? Was content presented in a disconnected way, or were topics seamlessly linked by persuasive segues? Did the article seek to answer a question and come to a resolution at the end?

We often succumb to the desire to make content short & digestible. We tend to think bullet points make information easier to consume. However, bullets actually increase cognitive load. In other words, they require more energy to read and comprehend than content which is presented in a lucid writing format.

Lucid writing is important in journalism, so that readers easily get the point of the article they’re reading. When what you write or say is lucid, it’s straightforward and its meaning is crystal clear.

The Economist is a prime example of how to take “dry” material and weave it into an engaging and memorable story. Their authors, write engaging stories about mundane topics. They magically make interest rates and bond yields seem interesting! Check out the Economist’s style guide for more tips.

Tell a story. It’s okay to lengthen your content in an effort to make it engaging and memorable. Your audience will thank you.

5. Consider the senses

Use narrative to evoke the senses. Visual and aural stimuli can enhance your message, but don’t forget about the other 16 senses. Yes 16.  Consider the sense of time, hunger, pain, or thirst. How might these play into your narrative?

6. Talk to the croc

Finally, remember the secret to engagement and long term memory lies with the crocodile. Get emotional. Activate your audience’s amygdalae by eliciting a fear, highlighting a benefit or showing something truly novel or unusual.

Check out my post Our Crocodile Brain to learn more.


COMING SOON: 06 | Game Mechanic #2 – Multiple long & short term goals



  2. (2017). lucid – Dictionary Definition. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jun. 2017].
  3. Harvard Business Review. (2017). Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jun. 2017].
  4. The Economist. (2017). Style Guide. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2017].
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