Storytelling: The Power of the Narrative
In recent years, storytelling has become the ultimate marketing buzzword. This ought to be a surprise because the concept is as old as humanity.
The Bible, whose stories present the values of Christianity. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which communicates social criticism through a parable. Fairy tales and fables that always end with the “moral of the story”. Or the stories that taught us mathematics as kids, featuring Paul, who has six apples and gives three of them to Tina.
There’s no question about it: we humans have long known about the power inherent in stories.
And we don’t even need to write them down or read them somewhere to be able to tell them. We can recount the story of Goldilocks or the Tortoise and the Hare at the drop of a hat because their images are fixed in our brains.
But what makes storytelling so powerful? What can stories do that mere facts can’t?
Why stories spark emotions
Just to warn you, the answer will get a bit scientific: the phenomenon is explained by biology and chemistry.
When we’re presented with pure numbers, two of our brain regions are activated: the regions that translate language into meaning – nothing more.
But when we hear a story, as many as seven regions light up! These include sensory systems that are actually responsible for taste, smell, touch and movement. The same systems would be engaged if we were really experiencing the story for ourselves.
So if we see someone in a film standing on the roof of a skyscraper, our palms get sweaty even though we’re not in danger ourselves. If someone tells us how tasty their food is, we get hungry and begin to salivate.
In other words, stories create emotions. And emotions, in turn, tend to stick in our memory much more reliably than flat information.
Read Montague, an American neuroscientist, also suspects that stories activate our brains’ rewards system, which otherwise responds to pleasant experiences like sex and eating but is also the basis of addiction. That could explain why we are so captivated by good films and so addicted to great television programmes that we can’t turn them off and we binge-watch entire series in one go.
How stories shape our behaviour
In another study, the neuroscientists William Casebeer and Paul J. Zak discovered that stories also have an impact on our behaviour. Their research subjects were shown a sad film about a sick two-year-old named Ben. This triggered the release of oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of closeness and empathy. As a result, participants whose blood was found to contain the hormone were more likely to agree to donate money than others were. According to the findings, the amount of oxytocin even correlated with the donation sum. This demonstrates that storytelling can in fact have an impact on the audience’s behaviour. And empathy is the strongest trigger.
Of course this isn’t necessarily news. We are all familiar with emotional TV fund-raising programmes. And that’s why we know how well the principle can work.
By the way, this reminds me of another story that inspired me to act: the story my parent’s told me as a child about Santa Claus not bringing presents if I wasn’t well-behaved. My room never looked so spic and span.
Why stories are so important online
Let’s take the example of shopping, no matter the product: food, clothing, furniture. In the “real” (offline) world, the shopping experience can be very emotional thanks to a wealth of sensory impressions: fragrances, background music, the physical feel of a product in our hands, a friendly salesperson, the atmosphere, the lighting.
Online, however, there is nothing to stimulate us but photos and product descriptions – pure numbers and facts. This becomes difficult because 90% of our purchasing decisions are influenced by emotion.
And that’s why the only world sorely needs fantastic product landscapes with compelling photos and moving videos that tell stories and engage the senses.
As a best-practice example take the website of Rausch Chocolates. And it’s true: Artfully conceived images of chocolate, breath-taking panoramas of the Berlin location, infographics about company statistics, a dip into their history and the chocolate-making process in video form – it becomes an interactive adventure playground that gives the visitor an instant chocolate craving.
The impact of strong storytelling is more than relevant if the goal is to generate emotion, draw people in, and persuade them about any topic – from charity to chocolate to corporate communication. So whatever the matter at hand, a story is a powerful tool.