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August 3, 2017

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August 3, 2017

The science of storytelling for business: as business recognises the need and commercial value of emotional connection with customers, we look at the science behind storytelling for business.


I remember hearing stories from an arctic explorer, Robert Swan at a conference many years ago. The narrative, images and drama of his story will remain with me forever. He captivated an audience of senior business leaders, who sat in total silence, spellbound as he explained the challenges he and his team had to overcome on a walk to the North Pole. The stories were captivating, full of emotion. He created a crystal clear vision so vivid, you would think it was real. I have re-told his story and how he delivered it to many people, it's been with me for more than 20 years and seems as real today as it did then. That's the power of storytelling.


Can brands have such engaging narrative, can businesses tell a good story, engage their customers and influence behaviours using storytelling? Can they get beyond the 'sea of content' strategies and marketing automation that has become so prevalent today. Well, yes, why not?


Science would suggest that businesses should tell stories, they engage people, persuade people, help people remember and they can be used to influence attitude and behaviour. That's stories of course, don't mistake 'content' for a story. An unhealthy percentage of content produced today is irrelevant rubbish, some mildly interesting and very little really compelling -  there's no real narrative, the same old words and phrases used time and time again until we become immune to them. Good, well aligned content can always support a good story, but the story is what people really engage with; the why, what if, why not, the emotion, feelings, intent, memorable moments and endings.



It doesn't have to be complete


Stories can have gaps, we can all work with approximations, we are able to complete the picture without all the detail. We do this based on our experiences, knowledge, inference, small pieces of evidence, pattern matching.


Creating structure


Of course our assumptions, beliefs and prejudices affect how we interpret things too. As we try to make sense of a story we look for connections. As we try to complete the picture these beliefs and assumptions can get in the way, our intuition leads us in the wrong direction. Leonard Mlodinow, makes it clear in his book, The Drunkards Walk - how randomness rules Our lives:


"..we all create our own view of the world and then employ it to filter and process our perceptions, extracting meaning from the ocean of data that washes over us in daily life. And we we often make errors.."


Storytellers use our prejudice, our intuition to trick us, to create a smokescreen and divert attention. Storytellers also use the same assumptions to let our minds conjure up images, create structures and develop relevance.


We use mental maps, metaphors to help us understand the world we live in. We use the same tools to understand stories. Through stories we can explain how things work, how to make better decisions, teach others and lead our customers to a future they may not be able to see easily themselves.


Searching for meaning and certainty


We're wired to expect meaning, we analyse narrative to find purpose, to make sense. Good stories have a point, they have meaning and purpose. They are a primal form of communication, connecting us to a 'bigger picture', they are human experiences, authentic, profound truths and dreams that we all share. Telling a story is one of the most powerful forms of communication and brand could develop.


We like certainty, predictability, things that are familiar. Most of us are uncomfortable with change, disruption and uncertainty. Our expectation is that stories have certain outcomes, an end point. a solution to the problem, a good outcome after the challenges faced. Stories let us experience challenge without risk, we can resolve conflicts, overcome barriers and enable a new future. Brand narrative should be a story helping people navigate to a better future.


It's all in the mind - but it's real enough


We process stories just as we would process real life experiences. We become emotionally engaged, we search for facts, evidence just as we would in the real world. We can become immersed, fully engaged emotionally and rationally in the story, the story occupies the 'whole mind', we become part of the story, willing participants. 


Duration neglect and peak effect


As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow: "..a story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing." We care about people and key events in stories, more importantly we interpret narrative and stories against our own life experiences. We map stories against the narrative of our own life and we want the ending to be positive and heroic. 


Kahneman talks about System 1 and System two, fast and slow thinking, intuitive and deliberate thought. Perhaps the reason that great stories work is that they don't engage System 2 too much. They don't require you to think intensely all the time, to calculate and rationalise. They engage your intuitive, emotional self and only occasionally demand that you think and challenge your intuition. In other words they are easy for your mind to consume.


When stories become legends


Great stories pass through generations, they connect people, they allow us to share our knowledge and experiences across cultural and demographic divides. Great stories, like great brands last because they have something to say, the maintain their relevance and meaning through generations, they become part of our lives.


Not all stories are written narrative, nor should they be


According to the Visual Teaching Alliance


  • The brain can see images that last for just 13 milliseconds

  • Our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour

  • We can get the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second

  • 90% of information transmitted to the braid is visual

  • Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text

  • 40% of nerve fibres are linked to the retina


These statistics suggest that visual narrative is powerful and more engaging. More importantly they suggest that we respond to this form of communication more readily.


Chemical stories


Paul Zak ran a series of experiments in his lab that showed, when people watch a short, sad story about a father and son two neurochemicals are produced:


  • Cortisol - which people experience when distressed or anxious, this encourages them to pay attention to the story

  • Oxytocin - which promoted a sense of connection, empathy, caring. People who produced the most Oxytocin, were most likely to help, to donate money or provide support. This may explain why some people are more susceptible to advertising than others.


Zak said:


"Our results show why puppies and babies are in toilet paper commercials. This research suggests that advertisers use images that cause our brains to release oxytocin to build trust in a product or brand, and hence increase sales"


Watch the story here: Future of Storytelling: Paul Zak


Another important chemical is dopamine - our brains release dopamine when they experience emotionally charged events making stories easier to remember and with more accuracy.


The physical aspect


Stories are how we learn, they contain the vocabulary and grammar of our world. When they are introduced to us through physical gestures or actions, body movements, dance, acting, when they are dramatised we can learn faster than we would if we were reading them, We also mimic or respond physically to stories, we become tense, we sweat, we cry, we laugh.


Total Physical Response Storytelling, (TPRS) has been used in classroom teaching of second languages. It's based on the theories of James Asher who argued that second languages are acquired in the same way as our native languages. We listen to the language before we produce it, and physically respond to commands. We act-out the stories, physically.




We tend from an early age to mirror stories or instructions through body language, we physically replicate or mirror the actions, we learn through enacting the story, participating in it. Mirror neurons in our brain fire when we act or observe actions performed by someone else. We tend to 'mirror' the behaviour of another. Our premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somotosensory cortex and inferior parietal cortext all have mirror neurons.


We have an instinctive, actually neurological capability to understand what other people are experiencing. New insight into the mechanisms through which we acquire social skills and communicate with each other like mirror neurons are starting to shine a light on how we empathise and communicate our feelings and intentions.


Neural coupling


In experiments using MRI scanning brains of the storyteller and the listener were monitored. Whilst the speaker was communicating with the listener, both their brains showed very similar activity across many areas. Their brains were in sync. Researchers found a slight time delay in the listeners brain.


More importantly, further tests revealed that the more extensive the neural coupling, the more successful the communication. In fact, scientists can now predict the potential success of a piece of communication by measuring the extent of coupling in the storyteller and listener brains.




There is no doubt that brands can tell great stories, and should. And, they need to integrate these into an extended narrative, a continuum of stories, all intimately connected to the essence of the brand, value propositions and experiences.


This is not the domain of content strategy, it is the world of storytelling, in which, content plays a role, but is not the main character. The main characters are the brand and the people it engages with. The point of this post is to help focus on storytelling for brands and business as a distinct long term discipline from more popular, tactical content marketing. It is to highlight the scientific evidence and psychological impact of storytelling. 


Storytelling is an invaluable business tool, well told stories make a difference and the science behind it is compelling.


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