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  • Geraint Holliman

Ouch! The science behind why storytelling works

Skater Boy Ouch

You know that feeling when you wince at the sight of someone else’s misfortune? Our unfortunate skater friend here is a classic example. Ouch, that is going to smart in the morning!? But why do we also feel his pain?

The answer is an important factor in why storytelling works as a way of communicating and brands that can utilise this.

An excellent recent article by Nathalie Nahaï in Marketing Week identified the three key aspects of stories which make them powerful communication tools. She identifies that:

  1. Empathy is created by particular brain cells called mirror neurons which allow us to feel the pain or pleasure of others that we observe (hence the ‘ouch moment above)

  2. Humans are hardwired to seek out the underlying narrative in stories to be able to connect the participants, their challenges and successes into one narrative arc.

  3. When listening to engaging stories our brains undergo a kind of neural coupling whereby our brain response patterns become markedly similar to those of the story-teller – we literally get on the same wavelength as the teller.

Natalie’s contention coincides with the Singer et al 2004 study in neuro-marketing which suggests that the human brain processes information best when it is told in ‘story’ format.

Many brands have woken up to the fact that customers and prospects are more highly engaged if they can communicate their value proposition in a story or narrative format. Simply shouting your list of features and benefits into the cacophony of the marketplace simply does not give the audience enough reason to stop and listen to what you have to say. Most of the claims that the audience is bombarded with are simply ignored or disbelieved because an advertising claim is typically a function of self-interest whereas stories persuade without the obstacle of resistance. Stories can have a very compelling and profound impact on customers. As Scott Bredbury, a former Nike and Starbucks CMO put it,

“A brand is a story that connects with something very deep. Companies that

manifest this sensibility invoke something very powerful”.

Kendall Haven, in his excellent extensive study on the application of stories in the explanation of science, ‘Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story’, summarised a ‘story’ as, “a narrative about a character overcoming some obstacle to achieve some important goal”.

Brand Storytelling Marketoonist

But why should brands be attempting to communicate with customers in story format? Jim Stengel, Proctor and Gamble’s ex Global CMO, said,

“What we really need is a mind-set shift that will make us relevant to today’s

consumers, a mind-set shift from ‘telling & selling’ to building relationships”.

Rohit Bhargava calls it ‘likeonomics’: telling a story in a business publishing context.

However, many brands are still confusing storytelling with regurgitation of the same old sales claptrap. Sadly, simply repurposing brochureware into a wizzy new format does not a story make.

Brands need to consider carefully what it is about their purpose, journey and actions that will empathise with customers’ needs from their product category and to articulate a compelling, honest narrative born out of the brand’s value set – and not a diatribe of corporate technobabble which bears little relation to customers’ actual challenges.

Have you defined your brand’s story? Does your brand story drive a compelling, continuing narrative with customers and prospects that engages with them in a shared challenge that you can both solve together? Interested in finding out how to tell your brand story better?

Contact us at Giantoo for more information on powerful storytelling.

Geraint Pensive

About the author: Geraint Holliman is Managing Director of Giantoo Content Marketing. A leading speaker and academic author he presents at events all over the world on content marketing, and branding. He will bore you to death on all content marketing issues if you give him a chance. Don't do it!!!! (But you could LinkIn to him here)

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