The Science Behind Storytelling: Why Narrative Cuts Through the Noise
September 14, 2020
At the beginning of every year, most marketing teams set aggressive goals for their content. With lofty numbers hanging over their heads, they crank out content with the sole purpose of gaming an algorithm or converting leads.
Unfortunately, this type of content is more likely to meet traditional marketing goals than say, an original docu-series might. And because of that, marketers claim the data backs up their strategy — they’re moving the needle, making more people aware of their product or service. The problem with this strategy, however, is that this type of content doesn’t actually resonate with audiences in a meaningful way. Sure, it may reach them, but it doesn’t strike a chord with them. In other words, it won’t turn them into life-long fans of your brand.
Storytelling, however, has the power to do just that. And lucky for us, neuroscience backs up that claim time and time again. Let’s take a look at the science behind storytelling itself, why it’s such a powerful tool for marketers, and how it can help businesses cut through the noise.
Stories are addictive
Before our ancestors could write about the dangers of their environment and teach their children how to maneuver the social dynamics of their community through books, they told stories.
It’s estimated that from the time humans started speaking to the time we started writing, almost two million years passed. During that period of time, the humans who learned how to survive their ruthless, prehistoric world through stories lived longer and reproduced more often than the humans who didn’t. As a result, natural selection shaped and hardwired our brains to crave, seek out, and pay instant attention to narrative.
“Humans who learned how to survive their ruthless, prehistoric world through stories lived longer and reproduced more often than the humans who didn’t.”
Today, brands that prioritize storytelling are tapping into their audience’s innate need for narrative. They’re the ones who will be able to get their audience hooked on their binge-worthy content. And not only that, but they’ll be the ones to inspire their fans to spread the word amongst their peers and friends.
Take, for example, how Taco Bell teased the return of their popular menu item — nacho fries — in their ad below:
To announce that nacho fries were making a comeback, the brand launched a fake movie trailer ad campaign with a witty and enthralling sci-fi storyline. By using a storytelling strategy, they were able to capture peoples’ attention in an entertaining way.
Stories are memorable
If a scientist scanned your brain while you watched Stranger Things, it’d look like Joyce Byer’s alphabet wall. Now, watching Stranger Things doesn’t lodge a Demogorgon into your brain. What it does do, though, is boost your brain’s neural activity, lighting it up like a Christmas Tree.
When more parts of your brain are active at the same time, your ability to remember whatever you’re engaged with increases exponentially. Stories warned our ancestors about the dangerous dire wolf lurking at night and taught them valuable social norms like generosity and cooperation, so the fact that narrative can illuminate our brains and sear information into our memories makes complete sense. If stories didn’t have this effect on our minds, our ancestors wouldn’t have remembered how to dodge that dire wolf or why they should help their neighbor.
Today, stories haven’t lost a speckle of charm. In fact, in a marketing industry that’s filled to the brim with uninspired content, narrative-driven content is more alluring than ever before. So, trust the neuroscience — if you want to earn people’s attention and bake your brand into their brains, do it through stories that speak to the wants, fears, desires, and beliefs of your audience.
“If you want to earn people’s attention and bake your brand into their brains, do it through stories that speak to the wants, fears, desires, and beliefs of your audience.”
Playing on fear, Allstate Insurance successfully bakes its brand into the brains of their audience. They’ve literally personified mayhem into “Mr. Mayhem.” For every commercial, Mr. Mayhem takes a different form, whether it’s a car thief or a pesky cat.
In this ad, Mayhem is a cat who is plotting against its owners. Allstate illustrates several instances where a cat might wreak havoc on your house. If you’re a pet owner, these mini-scenarios remind you that having the wrong home insurance coverage (and not Allstate) might end up costing you!
Stories make us feel
Every marketer has heard the adage that humans are creatures of emotion, not logic. But how do you consistently form bonds with strangers, persuade them to buy your product, and convert them into brand advocates? According to neuroscience, storytelling is your best bet.
When we read, watch, or listen to a gripping story, the activity triggers the release of oxytocin in your brain, which pushes us to relate, care, trust, and help others. Within the context of a story, a brain full of oxytocin helps us empathize with the protagonist. In fact, we’ll empathize so deeply with the protagonist that the parts of our brain that would be active if we actually experienced the story switch on.
If your audience can rely on your stories for a consistent fix of emotion, they’ll fall in love with your brand and keep coming back for more. In fact, humans have always revered great storytellers. In 2017, anthropologists discovered that the best storytellers in two different Filipino villages had a better chance of getting chosen to be social partners, gaining community support, and having healthy offspring. For brands, the benefits are equally valuable to their bottom line.
Nike has mastered the art of storytelling and other businesses look to them for inspiration. Their ads are famous for telling powerful stories, but they also showcase the brand’s values. Here’s a look at their recent ad “Dream With Us”:
Nike’s not just pumping up their brand here. In a world where women are marginalized, they’re encouraging women to tell their stories and inspire today’s youth to chase their dreams. However, the message still works to build their brand because people emotionally connect to the values being displayed.
The proof is in the neuroscience
Producing content that’s designed to game algorithms or convert website visitors might be able to generate a decent amount of views and leads for your team. And as a marketer with goals to meet and bosses to please, it’s tempting to prioritize your team’s own goals over your audience’s needs. But if you truly want to resonate with an audience, create a lasting impression on them, and, in turn, produce real long-term results, storytelling is the best path forward.