The Art of Storytelling: How Humans Are Wired for Story

» 9 min read

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By Rachel Davies

For millennia, storytelling has been used to advertise goods and services. Even marketers of ancient civilizations recognized the efficacy of story in introducing new products to the masses, demonstrating how they work, and illustrating how they change lives for the better. No doubt they also used storytelling to show off how their offerings outmatched the competition — though they likely never could have imagined competing in today’s era of endless content availability.

While our marketing ancestors understood that stories were effective at captivating and influencing audiences, they didn’t have access to research that details why. Because today’s marketers do, they can leverage storytelling to go beyond selling and use research to create content capable of winning and keeping customers’ attention in a hypercompetitive world.

“When companies don’t put the resources toward strong strategic communications, everything begins to blend together in a world of content chaos, and it becomes difficult to stand out.” — Beth Jannery, CEO, Titan 

Story-Focused Content Is Biochemically Rewarding

Storytelling works extraordinarily well in capturing and holding audiences’ attention — but not just because stories invoke ideas and feelings. The fact is, humans find stories irresistible, or rather, human brains do. As they scrutinize the meaning of information, readers’ brains constantly seek a reason to care, and attempt to anticipate what will come next.

According to Professor Read Montague, author of the book “Your Brain Is Almost Perfect,” neuroscientific research reveals that this activity leads to a rise of dopamine in the brain, causing a feeling of satisfaction.

Scientifically speaking, human brains have been hardwired to pay attention to stories since the beginning of humanity because it meant survival. In her book “Wired for Story,” story coach Lisa Cron says that the very earliest writing was used to convey information that would keep people out of harm’s way (e.g., “avoid this creature” or this “food source”). Because of this, when one saw writing, one paid attention, and soon after received a biochemical reward.

As humans evolved, the brain’s hypersensitivity to stories remained. Lucky for marketers, this means that when presented with brand stories, modern audiences are compelled to pay attention. Of course, holding their interest takes constructing stories using elements the brain appreciates.

Meeting the Expectations of Readers’ Brains

So what does it take to write a story that’s impossible for readers to ignore? Perhaps surprisingly, it has less to do with beautiful writing and more to do with the mechanics that bring that writing to life. If a writer can tell a story well, their way with words doesn’t matter as much as you might think. 

According to Cron, “There is an implicit framework that must underlie a story for that passion, that fire, to ignite a reader’s brain.” The framework she provides includes the following objectives a writer’s copy must meet:

Piques curiosity from the first sentence.

For a story to grab readers’ attention, something must happen right away, which the brain will use to anticipate what happens next. As explained above, this activity immediately leads to a rise in dopamine levels that cause deep satisfaction.

Includes only the information readers need to know.

Stories are designed to answer a single overarching question, and the brain expects that every word, line, and image will move readers closer to the answer. What doesn’t meet that expectation should be omitted. Conducting audience and SEO research, covered in chapters four and five of this eBook, helps writers zero in on what’s important.

Infuses emotion where appropriate.

If readers can’t “feel” what matters, then nothing matters, and they become indifferent to making decisions — or even to finishing a piece of content to the end. Developing and using a strong brand voice, discussed in chapters two and three of this eBook, gives writers specific brand personality traits from which to draw emotions their copy should express.

Ensures that the goal of the story is clear.

Without an objective, events that take place within the story appear to happen randomly. In this type of scenario, the brain has no meaning to perceive to help it guess what will happen next. Instead of rising, dopamine levels drop, and exasperation and frustration ensue.

Follows a cause-and-effect trajectory from start to finish. 

The brain is hardwired to analyze every experience it encounters in terms of cause and effect because if it knows what happened, it can work out what will happen next. Again, this activity provides the brain with the biochemical reward it constantly seeks.

Constructs consistent patterns throughout the piece.

Because the brain detests randomness, it attempts to convert data within information into meaningful patterns from which it can make predictions. For example, when all the set ups to payoffs within a piece of content are clearly set ups, the brain recognizes something is about to happen and ignites.

Leveraging Story Here, There, and Everywhere

What does this look like in action? What content types should storytelling apply to? Obvious answers include pages on a brand’s website (specifically in the “About Us” section) and television and streaming ads. The less obvious answer, though, is that storytelling can be applied to any content type on any subject of any length.  

Take an email for example. Written with storytelling mechanisms, the subject line is the hook that grabs the reader’s attention in the first few seconds. The body copy presents the reader with reasons they should care. Ensuring that the copy is concise, conveys emotion, lays out cause and effect, and follows a pattern keeps the reader interested and inspires them to engage. 

Even something as small as a headline for a display ad can leverage storytelling. Consider this clever line from HP: “Make Tax Season Less Taxing.” This five-word sentence, combined with an image of an HP printer, concisely conveys that tax season causes feelings of frustration, and that HP has a solution that the curious reader can click to learn more about. 

Complex topics that may not seem like they are a good fit for story, such as investing, medical technology, or data reporting, are in fact easier to consume and remember when explained using a storytelling framework. Using this method, the reader’s brain doesn’t have to work as hard and gains the benefit of that biochemical reward.

The Bottom Line 

Applying a storytelling framework to content that piques curiosity and evokes emotion, and is written concisely, clearly, and consistently, can give it the distinguishing characteristics the topic needs to grab readers’ attention, keep them reading, and even become evangelists of your brand. 

TA Digital’s Content team specializes in writing copy that does just that. Schedule a call with them to find out how they can make your content come to life.

About TA Digital

TA Digital is the only global boutique agency that delivers the “best of both worlds” to clients seeking to achieve organizational success through digital transformation. Unlike smaller, regional agencies that lack the ability to scale or large organizations that succumb to a quantity-over-quality approach, we offer resource diversity while also providing meticulous attention to the details that enable strategic success.

Over the past 20 years, TA Digital has positioned clients to achieve digital maturity by focusing on data, customer-centricity, and exponential return on investment; by melding exceptional user experience and data-driven methodologies with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we enable digital transformations that intelligently build upon the strategies we set into motion. We are known as a global leader that assists marketing and technology executives in understanding the digital ecosystem while identifying cultural and operational gaps within their business – ultimately ushering organizations toward a more mature model and profitable digital landscape.

Recognized in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2019, 2020 and 2021 Inc. 5000 list as one of the fastest growing companies in the United States, TA Digital is pleased also to share high-level strategic partnerships with world class digital experience platform companies like AdobeSAP, Acquia, commercetoolsSitecore, and Elastic Path.

WRITTEN BY:

Rachel Davies

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