How storytelling works

When we’re consuming a good story, it seems perfectly real to us. This strange phenomenon is usually referred to as suspension of disbelief. We suspend our critical thinking (“this is only a story” or “this is not realistic”) and believe in the story because it’s so much more satisfying than to write it off as fiction. The characters and events seem so real and bring back emotions we’ve had ourselves when experiencing something similar.

This is why stories have greater impact than a regular marketing pitch, mere facts or abstract information. A story’s emotional potency makes people more likely to remember it, be convinced and take action.

So how does this actually happen?

The answer lies in brain science – and some evolutionary biology. (Well, there might be some magic involved too, but let’s not go there).

Millions of story addict indulge in Netflix binge watching, but it’s not just about emotional rewards. Because like most powerful stuff, stories are about survival. They developed in our ancient brains and cultures because they kept us alive.

Our brains are flooded with sense perceptions and must somehow make some sense of them, and one of its clever strategies is to make up stories about everything. The stories give a structure and meaning to what we’ve experienced, so we can learn from it and adapt to our environment. Ultimately, they guide our behaviour. And since the dawn of mankind, telling stories have been the way to pass on the tribe’s learnings, cultures and norms to the children and the young. This is why we crave them and are so willing to buy them. As Princeton researcher Hasson puts it, “storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.”

Telling someone a really good story is like giving candy to a five year old.

Unlike other mammals, human beings have a rare gift: being able to imagine things that are not there, and things that have not happened. The experience of seeing, hearing and doing something – even when it’s actually there – is actually created in your brain by pulling together memories of similar experiences in the past. So when you imagine seeing, hearing and doing the same things, you activate exactly the parts of the brain that you would if it was real.

Just reading about the smell of fresh coffee, could activate your brain’s so called olfactory cortex – the area that responds to smell. If someone talks about grabbing a pencil, your motor cortex will respond – specifically, the part associated with hand movement. When we imagine biting into a juicy apple, we can sometimes hear the crunch and feel what it tastes like. We might even start salivating. Our subconscious mind simply can’t tell the difference between the real and the imagined.

The power of imagination has saved many of our ancestor’s lives. When we experience possible future actions and events and their consequences through our imagination, we can make predictions that increase our chances of survival. Imagine this scene:

Around a hundred thousand years ago, a hunter-gatherer walks confidently though the dense forest. Suddenly he spots a vaguely familiar movement among the branches up ahead. His pulse immediately rises, cortisol is released in his bloodstream and he is ready to fight, flight or freeze. He realizes it might be a bear, and a mix of near future scenarios flash through his mind.

If it is female bear cut off from her cubs and it charges, what will happen if he runs? In his mind, he sees the bear charging, himself starting to run and the bear catching up with him. Not good a outcome. What if he fights? Forget it, there is blood involved, and it doesn´t belong to the bear. What if he freezes? He imagines himself standing perfectly still and the bear ease by through the bushes without feeling threatened.

So he holds his breath, listens to sound of snapping branches, a little closer now…and finally, it becomes weaker…

We’re still telling ourselves mini-stories like this all the time to be able to predict the probable cause and effect of choices and events we’re facing:

“This food has way too much sugar in it, if I keep eating it I will end up sick and die sooner.” 

In modern days, we’ve taken this further: we all live in our own story that we believe to be real and true. We call it my life. It’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are, our past and our future. As anything we imagine, made out of memories, beliefs and desires. And of course, we depend on the stories about the world that we share: stories about materialism, revenge, economic growth, happiness. Brands.

So, it’s fair to say that we live through stories.

When we experience something that brings out strong emotions, our brains release a rush of dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone that makes it easier to process information and remember the experience. Just think of war veterans suffering from PTSD (Post Dramatic Stress Disorder). They have no choice but to live through the same emotionally charged event again and again.

In contrast, an abstract sales-pitch probably only activates our brain’s language processing part, where the meaning of the words is decoded, leaving our imagination and emotions untouched. So now you know why we´re much more likely to remember a story than USPs, bullet points and – in fairness – blog posts like the one you are reading now.

But it gets better. When I tell you a story, I tell myself the same story. It activates the same parts of my brain as in yours, creating a similar experience, as if we were both part of the story. If the structure is familiar, you will be able to guess what happens next a split second before you get the answer. Have you ever heard of mirror neurons? Well, if we imagine an emotional story, our brain’s mirror neurons will make us feel the emotions in the story. And when we feel empathy with a story character, our brains release oxytocin, a.k.a. the bonding chemical, that promotes connection and trust. What a treat.

When brains synchronize this way, they produce a very satisfying feeling of human connection. Clearly a win-win.

The teller and the listener react as if their imagined experiences were real: they both get upset if a character treated unjustly, even if the story is entirely made up. The storyteller and the listener share an experience rather than just exchanging information. Telling a story is sharing a story, a powerful way to connect with others and build relationships. With customers, partners and co-workers, for instance.

Getting excited about storytelling? Although much has been written about it, I’m thinking that I might dive into the topic of how to successfully tell a story, and how marketers can use engaging stories to win customers.

In the meantime, if you haven’t read it, check out my blog post Storytelling: what makes a story powerful? It’s about what storytelling is, what it isn’t, and how a strong story is constructed.

Yours truly,

– Erik

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *