Bedtime stories. Bestselling novels. Newspapers. Advertisements. Movies and TV. Our world is built on stories; they’re all around us. A story can have the power to clarify information, create emotional engagement, and make us feel as though we’re somewhere else. As far as our brains are concerned, reading a story is very similar to having the experience that’s being described yourself. For a marketer, there’s great value in that. If you can’t directly interact with your audiences, sharing a story may be the next best alternative.
Here’s what we’ve learned about the impact of storytelling on our brains:
1. Tension Keeps Our Attention
Our brains respond to the most imminent instances of tension. Paul Zak, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, explains that it’s simple for us to both drive and listen to music or hold a conversation — but when the car ahead of us hits the brakes, our brain stops multitasking to focus solely on avoiding an accident.
Likewise, our brains wander if a story isn’t providing some kind of tension at frequent intervals. We learn from tension — whether our own or in a story we’re experiencing — to prepare ourselves for similar experiences in the future.
2. Emotion Enhances Memory
We can’t absorb all the information we encounter. We’re bombarded by stimuli all day, from billboards and commercials to conversations with coworkers and friends. Our brains have to decide which information to remember, and emotion is a key differentiator for us.
Emotionally charged information is better stored in our brains, so we’re more likely to remember it. Use this power in your content marketing through emotive storytelling. This technique is scientifically backed as improving memorability.
3. Novelty Engages the Brain
When we see something new, we are wired to be interested in it. Zak uses the example of passing a car wreck. Whether or not the wreck itself is causing traffic, there’s generally a slowdown. Most people can’t help but turn to look and see the accident. That’s because our brains tell us we might learn something.
Perhaps we can deduce which car was at fault, or how injured each party was and why. Perhaps that knowledge can help us make decisions about how to avoid an accident in the future. (Though, of course, one of the best ways to avoid an accident is to keep your eyes on the road … !) This new, novel information is irresistible to us; it gives us more context to complete the story and learn something.
4. Our Brains Sync When Hearing or Telling a Story
Human brain waves line up when hearing a common story. Even the brainwaves of the storyteller and the listeners sync! As the story continues, the listener may even develop anticipatory or predictive brainwave responses to try to deduce where the story is going.
Of course, these reactions only work when the listener is engaged in the story. This means the storyteller must utilize the strategies above — introducing tension and novelty into the story frequently — for the phenomenon to continue.
5. Story Produces the Chemical Need for Empathy
Zak talks about the empathic connection formed when a story is told; we place ourselves inside the story to discover what we can learn from it. As long as the story continues to produce enough tension to hold our attention, “empathic transportation” occurs. It’s caused by the neurochemical oxytocin, creating racing pulses during an action movie or tears in a romantic drama. In these moments, we experience the story almost as though it was our own.
In terms of marketing applications, these empathic, oxytocin-fueled responses can encourage action, such as donations or a purchase decision. The anthropological and literary experiment Significant Objects is a strong example.
The curators of this experiment purchased many ordinary objects from thrift stores for resale, hypothesizing that the addition of a fictional story with each object could help them significantly improve on their investment through storytelling. They spent $128.74 on these items, and by accompanying their online auction postings with unique stories, they yielded $3,612.51 in total on the items’ resale. That’s $3,483.77 in profit, or a 27x return on investment, gained with the help of storytelling.
The success of the above example, then, isn’t based solely in the story, but the coupling of the story with an image. In an increasingly visual world, the power of visual storytelling can skyrocket the impact of your story-based marketing.
Visual IQ is among the fastest-rising IQs in our world, meaning audiences grow more attuned and get more out of visual experiences than ever before. To learn more about incorporating visual storytelling into your content marketing, check out our ebook, “Visual Communication: Storytelling Redesigned.”