Your Brain on Storytelling
Updated: Oct 28, 2019
We’ve all had that feeling, at one time or another, of exiting a dark theater after a really great movie. You squint in the light and slowly reorient yourself to the realization that the rest of the world has been trucking on while you were completely suspended in time for two hours. You were so caught up in the story you were able to forget everything else for a while.
But what does this have to do with business? Stories are great for entertainment, but what else? Research in recent years has shown exactly just how much storytelling can influence our behaviors, beliefs and connection with other people.
A study written up in the Harvard Business Review found that character-driven stories consistently cause the synthesis of oxytocin, a “feel good” chemical in the brain. Oxytocin cultivates empathy and voluntary cooperation among people.
The study further found that the reason the stories were able to produce this desire to help others was by developing the conflict in the narrative. If the story created enough tension, it was likely that the audience would come to share the emotional highs and lows of the characters and after the movie ended, continue to emulate those feelings.
In addition, when someone feels an emotional connection to a character, the activation of a chemical called dopamine in the brain helps stimulate a person’s memory. They’ll remember the story longer and more accurately.
When it comes to your business, both your employees and customers are bombarded with information every minute of every day in the form of spreadsheets, PowerPoints, raw data, memes, emails, conversations, Tweets….the amount of stuff we consume increases practically every day. So how do you get anything to stick?
Storytelling isn’t just a trend or a fad or the latest marketing craze. It is a scientifically proven way to engage with people and keep their interest in a genuine way. No false promises. No BS. No flashy tricks. It's the special sauce that works every time.
Engaging your customers in your brand’s story, whether it’s through social media, ad campaigns, video or events is key to hooking on to people’s attention and — just as importantly — keeping it. When people empathize with your story, they will naturally want to engage more with your company.
This is great for employees too. When everyone working for you knows your story and by extension, knows the values, culture and history of the brand, they too will be more engaged in your mission.
Yes, that sounds great in theory, but how do you figure out what story to tell?
Dig deep into your brand and figure out your “why.” What gets you and your employees out of bed in the morning? Why are you doing what you’re doing? If you know and feel the reason for your work, your audience will too.
You’ll also need a strong character that an audience will go on a journey with. This character might be a client, an employee, you…be as creative as you’d like! As the tension builds in your brand’s story—maybe the challenges you’ve faced on your way to success — cortisol, a stress hormone will build in your audience’s brain. But don’t worry!
As your story reaches its climax, oxytocin enters the picture, so the audience feels bonded with your character after all they’ve been through. For businesses, that can help customers build trust in you and want to hear more about what you can do. Then, as the story comes to its conclusion with (hopefully) a happy ending, dopamine helps the audience remember what they’ve just seen.
Sound complicated? Don't worry. We’re here to help.
Watch your favorite movie in the meantime. You just might be inspired.