The neuroscience of storytelling

Why stories sell: The neuroscience of storytelling.

Nothing’s less innocent than a great story.

By FELICITY VAN RYSBERGEN

As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by the way stories affect humans. But since studying psychology, I now know why it happens. And that has completely changed the way I approach copywriting for business.

The news that good stories are persuasive is nothing revolutionary. Anyone who’s read the Greek myths, the Brothers Grimm or Aesop’s tales can tell you how a moral embedded in a strong story can change the way you think.

Stories are the main vehicle of memes – viral thoughts that capture our imaginations and spread like wildfire from brain to brain. That’s because our minds are primarily story processors not logic processors; nature has shaped us as social animals and therefore particularly attentive to character and plot.

Only a short while ago, major religious (the Bible or the Koran, for example) or political texts (the Declaration of Independence) were the poster children for memes – they all marked specific ideas that changed the way humans think.

Now a web search for the greatest memes of all time yields Grumpy Cat and Rickrolling. Which just goes to show how addicted to memes – any meme – we are.

But why are stories so persuasive?

What happens when you hear a story: the neuroscience in a nutshell. 

We’re actually physiologically adapted to interact with stories more readily. As neuroscientist, Antonia Damasio declares in his book, Descartes’ Error, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.”

Damasio posited a theory called the “somatic marker.” Every moment of every day, your brain stamps an emotion onto everything you experience, which in turn makes it more likely your hippocampus will lay down a strong memory of the event. And that helps you make future decisions about what to do when you meet a similar situation again.

Rock me, amygdala. 

Imagine you’re out walking in the wilderness. You suddenly see something out of the corner of your eye – a snake! You freeze. Your heart skips a beat. Your amygdala, the fight or flight emotion centre of your brain, goes to red alert.

You sneak another look. It’s not a snake. It’s a stick. That’s your ventromedial prefrontal cortex kicking in to mitigate the amygdala’s panic. At this point your brain will also stamp the moment with a somatic marker so you won’t go to mattresses so quickly in the future.

Your amygdala is particularly powerful when you’re young, according to Breyer and Winters (2005), and is responsible for two behavioural effects in adolescents – “a tendency to react explosively to situations” and a propensity to “misread neutral or inquisitive facial expressions of others as a sign of anger.”

In fact, your prefrontal cortex (the bit of the brain behind your forehead) is one of the last areas to mature – until you’re 25, your amygdala is free to hijack your brain. Or, in other words, you’re all snake and no stick.

What’s this got to do with stories or copywriting? 

During your formative years, your brain runs on emotion. You learn to use emotion far more readily than logic to make decisions about who you are, what you do and what you’ll do in the future.

And that makes stories appealing to your emotions super-powerful for the rest of your life – a fact that’s crucial when it comes to creating your brand story.

“During your formative years, your brain runs on emotion. You learn to use emotion far more readily than logic to make decisions.”

When you read a story (or watch or listen to one), it becomes a vehicle that transports you, psychologically and emotionally, away from the here-and-now and into an absorbing narrative world.

A great story switches your brain from thinking to feeling – a naturally powerful state that means you’ve got less capacity to criticise the content and are more susceptible to allowing the story to influence your attitudes and/or intentions.

How all the great stories work. 

A new theory arrived at the turn of the millennium to account for this psychological phenomenon. Narrative transportation demonstrates how, when you get absorbed in a story, you stop paying attention to the world around you and focus your thoughts, emotions and mental imagery on the story.

Your logic centres disengage and you enter into the emotional world of the story, where feelings influence you more than facts.

Essentially, this means a great story is a kind of Trojan horse for whatever message the storyteller is trying to convey (actually, Virgil’s Trojan Horse story is the perfect case in point, spawning the age-old proverb – “beware Greeks bearing gifts”).

Think about it for a minute. What would happen if I forcibly tried to use facts and arguments to change your mind about something you felt very strongly about? You’d argue back, right? Or, if you weren’t feeling very confrontational today, you might walk away and dismiss me altogether.

When we’re confronted by efforts to persuade us to change our views about something we hold dear, we put our defences up. But when we’re told a compelling story, our guard goes down and we become more receptive to facts and arguments that seek to persuade us.

In fact, research shows the more you’re transported by a story, the more you’re likely to report having beliefs consistent with that story. You’ll also like the protagonist more, which makes you doubly open to persuasion, because we tend to agree with those we like.

And this makes a well-crafted story a uniquely formidable vehicle for compelling you to buy into what a brand is offering – even if you’ve never considered its products before.

What makes a great brand story? 

We live for stories – no, we need them. It’s simply in our nature. We want our favourites to be told to us again and again. They comfort us, excite us, entertain us and educate us. We keep the best ones, those that really touch our hearts (or our amygdalas), with us forever and learn from them every day.

Now, imagine if your brand story became your customer’s favourite story.

Research demonstrates there are specific qualities to a good story that can make it more likely to transport and persuade you – and all good copywriters should know them.

  1. When you identify strongly with a characteryou become less aware of yourself and more connected emotionally and cognitively with them – even to the extent of adopting their goals and behaviour as your own. Example: The story of Little Red Riding Hood’s misadventures with the big bad wolf is particularly powerful for teaching children to listen to their mothers and not talk to strangers. 
  2. Stories can be more powerfully persuasivewhen your goals match the character’s goals. The more you sympathise with a character’s narrative arc, the more you’ll identify with them and the more likely you’ll mirror that character’s attitudes. Example: If, as a child, you shared Little Red Riding Hood’s desire for independence from her parents, being intrigued by dangerous strangers or wanting to survive, you might find the story more compelling. 
  3. It’s all about narrative templates.The great stories are almost always about people with problems and how they overcome them. That’s because we’re primed to identify with heroes who confront trouble head on and overcome adversity (after a brief but entertaining struggle). Why? Because the consequences of failure have been so important to the human learning curve since the beginning of time, we’ve learned to seek a safe way to practice our emotional responses to trouble. Stories are kind of like flight simulators. They let us experience strong feelings that we don’t have to pay for later. That means following advice in stories has literally become hardwired into our brains. 
  4. Stories are just plain fun for us humans.You know that instinctively. It’s why movies, TV, the web, newspapers and books are likely a large part of your life. It’s why you return to your favourite stories again and again. 

Your brain feeds on stories for some very important reasons – not the least of which is the chemicals released when your amygdala feels strongly in turn strengthens the imprint of a story’s key messages on the memories your hippocampus creates. And, remember, your memories are what make you uniquely you.

Telling your unique brand story in the right way – by helping others identify and feel at one with your brand – is a hugely powerful tool for building your business.

Just like us humans, the stories you tell about your brand configures your business’ biology and ultimately creates the blueprint for its success, making it more memorable in the minds of your most loyal customers.

Want to use storytelling – or, as we like to call it, storyselling – to boost your brand’s profile and attract more paying customers? Give us a call!

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