Stories pre-date the written word and have always fascinated people – from cave paintings to novels, movies or the latest viral sensation. Science tells us the reason why marketers should pay attention to stories.

Almost a decade ago a group of journalists and researchers banded together to quantify how storytelling affects how we perceive the value of objects. They created The Significant Objects Project and ran around to dusty thrift stores, local garage sales – anywhere people were trying to sell their ‘junk’.

They hired well-known writers and novelists to spin stories about the cheap trinkets they had collected. These stories were placed alongside the object instead of product descriptions on eBay, and the team sat back and watched as their $129 worth of items sold for a net profit of $3,613 – a 2700% increase in value.

We’re not saying this is a rigorous scientific experiment – it’s a bit of fun. But, marketers, it’s fun with a message – get your storytelling right and your product or service’s value skyrockets.

(And a sidenote for the content strategy obsessed – as the project gained more attention it became a publication and event series in its own right, leveraging team-created, contributed and user-generated content, with eBay as one of the main publication platforms. eBay!)

The science behind the story

Nancy Harhut is a Chief Creative Officer who has won hundreds of awards for her marketing effectiveness. She is also a global expert on behavioural science in marketing, who believes storytelling is a powerful tool for marketers.

“If you think about it, way before the written word, stories were how people communicated – how they passed information from generation to generation. And it worked,” she says.

The reason has to do with how our brain processes stories.

“If the brain is just processing facts and figures, it involves two parts of our brain – Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area – which are areas responsible for processing language,” Harhut says. “But when somebody listens to a story or watches a story, other parts of their brain get involved.”

These ‘mirror neurons’ mean that when you listen to a story about waking up to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting under your bedroom door, that would engage your olfactory cortex, which is responsible for smell. And a story about a painful fall while out on an afternoon jog that resulted in a broken nose would activate the motor cortex because of the different motions and actions mentioned.

The more parts of your brain that are activated, the better you understand and retain information. And rich storytelling gets our brains buzzing with activity all over.

Telling stories well

Content marketers have a mandate to create stories that are engaging.

“If you are going to do content marketing, what a great opportunity to tell a really interesting story,” Harhut says. “If it’s not, why even bother?”

There are many different storytelling models – from Aristotle’s dramatic story structure, the hero’s journey, Nancy Duarte’s mix of ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’, to name just a few recognisable ones. Importantly, most stories have an element of emotion.

“Stories allow us to add emotion to our marketing messages and to our content, which is really critical because when people are making decisions they have to call upon their emotions,” Harhut says.

Harhut points to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose research about people who sustained injuries to the part of the brain that controls emotion found they were virtually incapable of making decisions.

“Very often we make a decision for emotional reasons then justify our decision to ourselves and other people with the rational reasons,” she says. “There is always a person at the other end of a buying decision, so therefore there is, by definition, emotion.”

She points to General Electric’s ability to weave their product into content without taking away from the story on topics like a descent into an active volcano as an example of good emotion-evoking and attention-grabbing storytelling in content marketing.

But as anyone who has worked in content marketing will attest, competing priorities make it hard to tell stories well consistently.

“There is so much information that you want to get out there and sometimes it’s a matter of cleaving several different internal constituencies, sometimes it’s space issue or a resource issue, sometimes it’s just the way we are used to,” Harhut says.

How do we balance those competing priorities then? It’s a matter of understanding just how telling stories well fits with the very reason you’re saying anything at all – your audience rarely wants a spec sheet, and always wants to be entertained, engaged, informed. And it’s a matter of sharing that understanding among your team – both up and down the line.

“Granted, telling a story about beer is going to be different than telling a story about ball bearings but, that said, the frameworks of good stories are going to apply regardless.

“How that information is packaged and how it’s put out in the marketplace will make a difference in terms of the amount of engagement and connection that you have with your target audience.”

The shortcuts to memorability

In Harhut’s days working on television commercials, a common worry was spending too much time on story and not enough on message – the ad was memorable but the product wasn’t.

“We have to be very careful when we construct our stories,” she says. “Put the emphasis on the right places, start with something that will capture someone’s attention, and then maintain that focus. But then the hero or the solution or the surprising end, however it is we choose to structure the story, needs to somehow revolve around our brand or our company or our product in a way that makes it memorable.”

Harhut believes in influencing a potential customer’s decisions using “decision-making shortcuts”, hardwired responses developed over millennia to conserve mental energy.

“We like to think that every decision we make is well thought out, but the truth of the matter is very often that’s not the case,” she says.

This shouldn’t be a contentious point among marketers – Gerald Zaltman’s book How Customers Think suggests that up to 95 per cent of a customer’s decision making takes place from the subconscious mind.

Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow and Professor of Marketing Science at the University of Adelaide , who’s also closing in on a quarter of a century as Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, explains that most thinking and decisions are both rational and emotional, not one or the other. This makes both entertainment and persuasion important, and triggering emotional responses to a consistent brand essential.

“The data is beginning to tell us who to talk to, when to talk to them and even what behaviours to ask of them. Then the behavioral science is what’s going to increase the likelihood that we can serve up the message in a way that will get people to respond the way we want them to,” Harhut says.

“What we want to do as marketers is to build some of this social science into our strategy and into our creative executions, like storytelling, so that we can nudge or prompt or trigger these automatic behaviors.”

Hannah Dixon contributed to the writing of this piece.

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