24 November 2022

The neuroscience of storytelling

Are you interested in the neuroscience of storytelling, but not sure where to start?

The power of storytelling doesn’t begin and end with your brand story, clear and strategic storytelling integrated into your marcomms and content strategy gets results.

According to Professor Jennifer Aaker at Stanford University, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. If you add the fact that nearly 90% of consumers would switch to brands that share their values and outlooks on life, you can see why telling clear and strategic stories is important.
But what has neuroscience got to do with this? The neuroscience of storytelling tells us how stories affect the brain and gives clues as to how we can harness this in brand strategy to achieve desired outcomes.

So, if you’re curious – let’s dig a little deeper.

Why is storytelling so powerful?
Human brains are wired for storytelling. Stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy. Storytelling is one of the few human traits that is truly universal across culture and through known history.

Perhaps most importantly, storytelling is how we make meaning from our lives.

What is the neuroscience of storytelling?
Listening to a story activates both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. When we see or hear a story, chemicals are released in our brain that are associated with certain behaviours, for example oxytocin which encourages empathy.

Lani Pearson at Harvard Business School says, “Scientists are discovering that chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Why does that matter? If we are trying to make a point stick, cortisol assists with our formulating memories. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. When it comes to creating deeper connections with others, oxytocin is associated with empathy, an important element in building, deepening, or maintaining good relationships.”

Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, undertook a recent study to further understand the power of oxytocin in relation to motivating people to co-operate. The study showed that the amount of oxytocin released by the brain did predict how much people were willing to help others.

In one version of the experiment, based on charity adverts, Zak’s team gave participants synthetic oxytocin and noted that they donated to 57% more of the featured charities and gave 56% more money than participants given a placebo. Those who received oxytocin also reported more emotional transportation into the world depicted in the adverts.

Zak argues that these finding and those of follow up studies, show the importance of the neuroscience of storytelling in business settings. He advises that stories are powerful tools for both internal and external communications. His advice to businesses is, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.”

Why use storytelling to inform your brand strategy?
How can the neuroscience of storytelling help with brand strategy? Easy. If you tell a good and consistent story about your brand, you will create brand recognition with proven emotional resonance.
Research by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman shows that, 95% of purchasing decisions are subconsciously or emotionally taken. He argues that “The basic idea of connection is central to the product’s value proposition and becomes a more profound basis for developing marketing strategy than technical superiority or long-lasting benefits.” That’s to say, connecting consumers to products or services through stories can create better brand loyalty.

How can storytelling be integrated into your strategy?
Successful brand storytelling brings facts, reasons, and emotions together to maximise brand impact. It gives people something they want to be a part of or be associated with.

Simply telling stories for the sake of engagement isn’t enough. A good brand and content strategy will examine what emotions you want to target, and what kind of response or action you are aiming to achieve. Whatever your strategy, any storytelling you do should be centred around integrity and consistency. There´s no point telling one story, if your customers won’t have their expectations fulfilled.
How can you measure the success of storytelling?

Depending on your strategy, engagement metrics could include:
• email subscribers
• new followers
• blog views
• increased time on page
• click throughs
• likes and shares
• purchases
• donations

Qualitative research could also tell you if you brand storytelling is working – run a customer survey and find out how customers define your company. Are they telling the same story as you? If not, why not? All areas of your brand story should be consistent.

The neuroscience of storytelling: mirroring
Let’s finish with one of the most important facts about brains and stories. When someone is engaged in a story, a neurological phenomenon called ‘mirror neurons’ or ‘narrative transport’ is present. This means the listener or receiver is experiencing the same emotions being presented to them. Now, consider what emotion you would like your audience to experience just before they take action to engage with you – how could you convey this through story?

With the right strategy and content, you can harness this neuroscience to choose and create the right storytelling touch points and achieve your desired results.


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