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Why Storytelling Works

Having studied Religious Studies at University, I’ve always been fascinated by stories and storytelling. In fact, from a very young age, I have always been trying to either write my own, or find ways of presenting other peoples’ (for better or worse – my efforts in the late 1970’s, aged 6 or 7, to put on a stage play version of Star Wars fortunately never materialised).

I knew that, in terms of societal control and religion, stories are always the bedrock. Stories about the good guys and the bad guys; the locals and the people from other parts or religions. Good stories need conflict, so what better way to keep a community or country all pointing in the same direction than to tell stories about them vs. everyone else.

It’s all in Your Head

But it wasn’t until I recently discovered Simon Synek’s little tome, ‘Start With Why,’ that I began to understand just why stories are so powerful. It turns out that it’s all to do with our brains and how they’re structured. Now, some may argue that there are two or three parts to the human brain, but all that is important here is that there are two key areas – the limbic system and the neo-cortex – and they have one big difference.

The neo-cortex, the outer part of the brain, deals with self-control, planning, reasoning, and abstract thought. Most importantly, it deals with language. It’s the bit that chatters away incessantly with words, ceaselessly analysing everything that is happening to, and around, you.

The limbic system, which some assume to be the older part of the brain as it sits inside the neo-cortex, deals with emotions, motivations, and memory. It also deals with the choices that we make, and, crucially, does not have any capacity for language. This combination of factors is why story is so powerful.

Expressway to the Heart

By telling someone an interesting story, the analytical neo-cortex is bypassed, and we start talking directly to their limbic system. The neo-cortex shuts up for a while and we become engaged with the story. Brain scans have shown that when a person hears a story or watches a film, the same parts of the brain fire that would fire if they were experiencing the events for real. The limbic system processes all this information, and stores these ‘experiences’ as memories, firing similar emotional states as it does so.

This is why film and stories are so engaging. As far as your poor limbic system is concerned, you might as well be there! You really are facing up to Voldemort, being chased by a horde of Mynocks, or waving goodbye to your new, beloved, Extra-Terrestrial friend.

This is powerful stuff, and something quite hard for us to comprehend, as the lack of language capabilities in the limbic system makes it hard for us to articulate how something has an emotional impact on us. As Synek points out; try expressing to someone why you love your partner. It’s incredibly difficult to put those emotions into words. And it’s why we admire poets so much, because the good ones somehow find a way to do it.

You Love Us

From a marketing point of view, this is important to understand as it explains why people like your company and your brand. By hearing stories about your brand (and even telling ourselves stories about your brand), each of us builds up an emotional state around your company and your brand. This is why the lovers and the haters will never agree, because they can never fully articulate why they like or dislike a particular brand so much. They just feel it in their gut, and are insistent that they are right.

This is why I’m a firm believer that storytelling should be the primary method where you need someone to take your side – either in marketing or politics or whatever. Focussing on the hows and whys of a product or an idea isn’t the best way forward, as it will simply invoke the neo-cortex into an endless loop of analysis, and the emotional impact is lost. But tell someone a story either about your product, or one that represents your company and it’s values in some way, and you will make a much bigger and lasting impact.

I’ve been looking around recently for good examples of storytelling marketing, and was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few. However, I still think Ridley Scott’s ‘1984’ advert for the Macintosh computer is still most one of the most powerful.

Have you seen any good examples?

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