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Elizabeth Chung
The Science of Storytelling and How to Harness Its Power

The Science of Storytelling for Marketers

For thousands of years, stories have helped us learn, connect ideas, and understand each other and ourselves. More often than not, the lessons and impressions they leave on us are far more memorable than the information acquired through reports or fact-driven presentations.

Neuroscience confirms why this happens.

Here, we dive into the science of storytelling, how it affects our brains and emotions, and a few ways you can harness this power in your marketing strategy.

How Stories Engage Different Parts of the Brain

Why do stories make us come alive in ways that textbooks and fact-ridden presentations cannot? Unlike the latter, stories don’t just stimulate the language-processing regions of our brain—they can also activate other areas that process the narrative as a real-life experience.

Take sensory words and details, for instance. In one 2006 study, researchers in Spain found that words strongly associated with odors—like “mint” or “rose”—not only activated the language-processing areas of readers’ brains, but also the regions that deal with smells.

We may suggest that odor words automatically and immediately activate their semantic networks in the olfactory cortices…The results of the present study suggest that reading words with strong olfactory associations in their meaning activates olfactory regions of the brain.

More indistinct words like “coat” or “button” failed to generate the same response.

Similarly, when we read words referring to motion, the motor cortex—the part of the brain responsible for muscular movements—gets activated. In fact, different parts of the motor cortex can light up depending on the specific word. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, one group of researchers discovered that when people read words like “pick,” “lick,” or “kick,” parts of the motor strip responsible for moving the fingers, tongue, or feet also become active.

There’s even evidence that this happens when people listen to sentences describing physical movement.

The science of storytelling shows us that when we read about or listen to an experience, multiple regions in the brain fire off to mentally reenact it. And this happens not just with isolated words and sentences, but full narratives. Jeffrey Zacks, the director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, states,

Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story.

In a 2009 study, Zacks and his team used fMRI scans to study participants’ brains as they read short stories. They found that when participants read about a situation encountered by a fictional character, the brain areas that lit up were the same ones that fire when encountering that situation in real life.

science of storytelling, brain reenacts read situation

These findings shed light on why a story—with its rich details, sensory images, and metaphors—becomes so vivid that it pulls readers into “another world.” Our brains start simulating it as reality. More importantly, we adopt the main character’s story as our own. Every description, sensation, and emotion gives us the opportunity to experience what they’re going through and even understand their thoughts and feelings.

How Stories Can Affect the Way You Feel

It happens when you ugly-cry as Mufasa dies in The Lion King (spoiler alert). Or when you feel a surge of relief as Gandalf, at the last possible moment, reappears to save the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. When we follow and take up a character’s story, we react emotionally to their experiences. Research shows that this, too, is the result of a neurological response.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak found that our brain produces two neurochemicals during a story with a dramatic arc: cortisol, a stress hormone that hones our concentration, and oxytocin, the “love” hormone associated with social bonding, trust, and empathy. In one experiment, after having participants watch an emotional story about a father and son, he also found that those who produced oxytocin were more willing to donate to a charity afterwards.

But how do you craft a story that induces such a strong response? Zak’s research indicates that the most engaging stories follow an age-old dramatic structure, known as Freytag’s Pyramid.

Science of Storytelling, Freytag's pyramid

Important elements like rising tension, a climax, and a resolution hook readers in and leave them emotionally invested in the narrative.

We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention—a scarce resource in the brain—by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, are likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.

Paul Zak

So storytelling has the power to change our brain chemistry and in turn, our actions. Below are are a few ways you can use this to improve your marketing strategy.

Read Next: A Nonprofit Storytelling How-To

Tips to Craft a Compelling Story That Drives Action

1. Look to Your Audience to Shape the Narrative

To make sure your story hits home, you have to first figure out who you’re aiming for. What are your targeted audience’s interests, struggles, or questions? What do you want them to learn from your message?

These questions should guide your decisions as you create your content. Your answers may differ for each segment of your targeted audience. By identifying and understanding the people you want to engage, you can craft a message that will resonate with them.

2. Focus on the One Over the Many

Rather than opening with facts and figures, hook in your audience by dropping them in the middle of one individual’s story. People are wired to connect with each other, not broad statistics. Studies on charitable giving even show that people are more likely to help a named individual over a larger, unnamed group.

Given the average attention span lasts only eight seconds, help your audience focus on a specific aspect of this person’s experience so they can quickly form an emotional connection. For example, if you’re focusing on a person’s lack of access to clean water, you might open your narrative with the individual trekking for miles in the heat to the nearest well. Drive your audiences to empathize with this individual’s real-life situation and struggle.

3. Introduce Conflict and Resolution

Keep your audience invested through a clear conflict. As your story follows the dramatic arc, help your audience understand the pain that your main character experiences by giving specific examples, and then build towards a critical moment that sets the trajectory for your character’s future. Perhaps this turning point leads the character to look to your product or service for the first time.

By heightening the tension your audience experiences, you can deepen their relief when they see your work is part of the solution.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Use simple, yet powerful language that transports your audience into the world you’re trying to paint. Sensory details and strong verbs are key. Rather than saying “Sandy felt confident,” you might write “Sandy straightened her shoulders and looked Gene in the eyes.”

Keep in mind this doesn’t mean you should overload your sentences with adjectives and adverbs. To deliver a clear, impactful message, try to opt for fewer words that pack a bigger punch. For example, instead of saying “he ran quickly,” you could write “he sprinted.”

As neuroscience weighs in, we’re finally beginning to understand what makes the experience of a story so vivid and engrossing beyond the actual words. Its impact on our brain drives the responses of our hearts. And because our emotions steer our decisions, you can inspire people to act by capturing their attention with a story.


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