Storytelling isn’t selling: Stop shoehorning your brand and use science instead

Paper + Spark's Zeina Khodr explains how neuroscience can help improve our storytelling and outlines why great stories are a critical tool for impact and connection.

It goes without saying that storytelling is generally considered to be best practice for modern content creators. Unfortunately, far too many of today’s content creators confuse storytelling with selling and attempt to shoehorn their brand – or the brands they’re working with – into a story that doesn’t fit.

It might sound counterintuitive, but in order to understand how to tell good stories, creators and brands need to understand the science behind them. Creating immersive, memorable content, creators and marketers alike should invest the time in understanding the human brain and what makes us tick.

Humans have told stories for as long as we’ve been on this planet. While cave drawings and hieroglyphic depictions play an important part in the early human history of communication, for the most part, our stories, traditions and historical records have been transmitted orally. In fact, the transition from oral to written culture didn’t come into full force until Ancient Greece, where the earliest transcriptions date from 770 to 750 B.C.

How storytelling affects the brain

Storytelling is an important part of our collective history, but what do stories actually do to our brain? When we hear plain facts, two areas of our brain are engaged: Broca’s Area, and Wernicke’s Area, both of which help us process and produce speech. In contrast, when we hear stories, up to seven areas of the brain are activated. These areas relate to all the senses, including language and emotion.

When we experience an emotionally charged event, even if it’s being conjured through storytelling, our brains release a suite of chemicals in response to the type of event, including dopamine (‘happiness’), oxytocin (‘love’), endorphins (‘excitement’) and cortisol (suspense and tension).

We also experience processes known as neural coupling and mirroring, where we are able to relate our own experience to the story being told, and our brains actually reflect or ‘mirror’ the activity of the speaker and other listeners. The connection that we feel when we are captivated by a truly great story isn’t just emotive – our brains are physically reacting in ways that connect us with one another.

That’s why a really great story can invoke a response that feels completely immersive. We imagine that we can see, hear, smell or taste what is being talked about – an experience which is backed up by our scientific understanding of what’s happening in the brain.

US-based non-profit Charity:Water does an excellent job of using narrative storytelling to engage their audience and elicit a holistic emotional response that seizes the opportunity to connect with viewers via a range of trigger points. Tracing the journey of founder Scott Harrison from party-boy nightclub promoter to clean-water advocate, the company is able to clearly show their mission, their vision and impact.

Locking the memory in

The brain’s strong physical response to storytelling helps us remember the details with greater accuracy. In fact, we are 22 times more likely to remember a story as opposed to data and facts alone.

However, if your story fails to get your audience’s emotions firing, then it won’t get locked in their memory over the long term. That’s why it’s not enough to tell an amazing story and shoe-horn your brand in there. There needs to be a genuine relationship and relevance between the story you tell and who you are.

In order to truly lock the memory in, don’t be afraid to get personal, which will involve being true and honest with lots of details. Being relatable is important, too. If you know your audience well, you should be able to use their dreams, fears and desires to draw parallels between the characters in your story and the people you are talking to.

The pandemic has resulted in an avalanche of ads trying to communicate the ideas of togetherness and community. Insurance provider YOUI, for example, has proven itself a step above the rest in both relevance and authenticity by showcasing the stories of individuals who have had to forge new paths as a result of the pandemic. Their ‘Life Changes’ series does not use sentimentality as a crutch, instead, the content has a strong correlation with their brand identity as providers of real solutions for real people.

Be engaging and entertaining, because if it’s an interesting story, people will read or watch on for the sheer fun factor. Powerful images help engage more than one sense, transporting your audience and evoking a particular feeling in their minds’ eye. Paint pictures with your words by describing small details that help create a larger mental picture. Airbnb’s community stories is a great example of a brand using powerful stories, imagery, and videography to evoke emotion, and doing so in a way that doesn’t feel like a sales pitch.

Finally, always remember that if an audience feels that their emotional responses are being manipulated so that brands can sell them something, you’ll ultimately create a sense of betrayal, mistrust and disgust. Our brain’s primal response to fraud is just as strong as the responses that create a meaningful connection. Neurons that fire together wire together. Stories are powerful. Use them wisely.

Zeina Khodr is the founder of Paper + Spark.


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