People love good storytelling. It’s a scientific fact that we are hardwired to dramatize, to imagine, and immerse ourselves in good stories. Neuroscientists can demonstrate that our brains light up like Christmas trees when we are absorbed in a compelling story. Our motor cortexes, emotions, imagining sensations and visual image processing are all working overtime.
Neural activity increases five-fold. There is a saying in neuroscience: “neurons that fire together, wire together” (a quote attributed to Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949). As our brains light up, we’re more likely to remember story details. Good storytelling also produces a neurochemical called oxytocin, known as the ‘empathy drug’ or ‘love drug.’ In biology, it helps reinforce the attachment between mother and child as well as the connection between romantic partners. When we feel empathy during a story, we are more likely to take action.
‘Emotionally Triggered’ Marketing
Businesses want to earn the trust of consumers and build a relationship. That’s where storytelling comes in. If your story can trigger the release of oxytocin and create empathy with your brand, the more likely your audience will make purchases. Good storytelling helps people remember your brand.
As much as we like to paint ourselves as 100% rational when it comes to consumer decisions, neuroscience shows that we often lead with our hearts. Decision-making is an emotion first, logic second process. Decisions start in the amygdala (the clusters of nuclei responsible for emotions) and then proceed to the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain used for information processing). For you “Star Trek” fans, that means we’re more Kirk than Spock.
If you want customers to buy your product, make them care about your story.
There are hundreds of examples of brands using emotional stories in their campaigns. The Budweiser Clydesdales ad following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the IAMS “Boy and His Dog” pet food commercial and this Thai Life Insurance ad that went viral are just a few of the memorable stories that made an impression on consumers. In the case of the Budweiser ad, it only ran once (during the Super Bowl in 2002) but left an indelible impression among TV viewers.
How do you tell a great story?
Through neuroscience technology, we can now pinpoint the precise moment when an audience member loses interest in your story. So, what separates a good story from a bad one? Dozens of books and websites promote their pillars for good storytelling and all of their merit. The one I prefer keeps things simple. It’s the four elements of great storytelling from the book The Storytelling Edge by Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow (both of whom work with the website Contently).
The Four Elements of Great Storytelling
We like the familiar. It’s difficult to invest in a story that is “too out there.” Let your audience make a connection. How often do you find yourself clicking on a BuzzFeed story? If you’re like most people, probably several times a week. It’s easy to be sucked in by such tailored headlines as ’15 Signs You Grew Up With Korean Parents.’ Swap ‘Korean’ for Polish, Greek, French, German, Russian and every other ethnic group and Buzzfeed has probably appealed to every segment of the population with stories everyone finds relatable. They gain an even bigger audience when readers share their stories with others in their network.
We also like things that are new and original. Neuroscience also shows us that people’s brains light up when they are exposed to something from outside our comfort zone.
At this point, you’re probably saying ‘wait a minute, don’t these two contradict each other?’ The short answer is not necessarily. Look at the 1999 box-office smash, “The Matrix.” It includes elements of both novelty and relatability. Audiences can relate to Neo’s struggle to break free from his oppressors and the feeling of being enslaved by technology. The novelty comes from the idea that we’re all living in a simulation as technology feeds off our bodies (the special effects were also pretty ground-breaking at the time).
In their book, Lazauskas and Snow include a graph that shows the ‘target zone’ or ‘sweet spot’ between Relatability and Novelty. Give your audience the right balance of each.
Think of elements that will hold the audience’s attention. Make them wonder, ‘what will happen next?’ right to the end. “Romeo & Juliet” is a much more compelling love story than two people meeting on Tinder. Forbidden love, warring families and fake suicides are far more gripping than two people swiping right. In marketing, think of the classic “Hero’s Journey” approach when writing case studies. There are peaks and valleys before our hero comes full circle and triumphs in the end.
Write your story so your audience can easily understand. My old boss used the ‘KISS’ method (Keep It Simple Stupid). I can’t say I liked the last part of that saying, but it put the exclamation point on things. Your audience doesn’t want to struggle to engage with your content. Remember when you had to trudge through “Beowulf” in junior high? Not a pleasant memory, is it? Many of the most popular authors write at around a fourth-grade level. Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, E.L. James – they all kept it simple and sold millions of books in the process.
People love a good story, so tell a good story. Tell a great story. It’s a perfect way to strengthen your brand and make an emotional connection with your audience that will keep them coming back for more.
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