When I was a kid, I used to read stories. A LOT.
When I wasn’t reading a story for schoolwork, I was reading a story for pleasure. I started reading the newspaper when I was about 9 years old – so I was reading both reported, true stories, and fictional stories, while most of my classmates were playing video games.
I remember reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series and being absolutely riveted. A 13-year-old boy stranded in the northern Canadian wilderness, carrying nothing but a hatchet and suddenly forced to survive and be independent? That spoke to me.
Then there was The Giver by Lois Lowry. A young man introduced to a whole history and a whole world of emotion that his entire society said doesn’t exist? That’s one hell of a burden to bear.
Then in Grade 12, in my Writer’s Craft class, we read a novel called Smoke by Elizabeth Ruth. Set in small-town Ontario where I’m from, Smoke narrates the journey of a young man – Buster McFiddie – whose life is changed forever when he’s disfigured in an accident. The town doctor, old John Gray, tries to ease Buster’s pain through story. But Gray is hiding a whole world of secrets that is broken open when an armed bandit starts terrorizing the town.
I’m more of a non-fiction reader now, but there’s still nothing like a good story – whether true or not. There’s something immersive about the story experience that seems to speak to something deep within us humans. And the business world is only just beginning to understand the power of the story.
For most of modern history, people thought of stories as a distraction or as entertainment. But the fact remains that everyone loves a good story, and that indicates there’s something deeper about the story, something that touches us on a fundamental level, that we need to know about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished reading a book, looked up, and felt completely disoriented, as if I’d been torn out of one world and thrown haphazardly into a completely different one.
And as it turns out, there’s good evidence to believe that storytelling should be a major part of running a business. Stories don’t just entertain people – they actually change the way your brain works on a chemical level.
How Stories Change Your Brain, According to Science
In 2004, neuroeconomist Paul Zak and his team of researchers were investigating chemical interactions in the brain. What they discovered is that a specific neurochemical, oxytocin, is a critical trust-building chemical. When oxytocin floods your brain, it causes you to trust others and to feel safe. Zak’s team found that the brain produces oxytocin when someone is shown kindness or trust. They also discovered that people with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to work in cooperation with others. Oxytocin, Zak says, helps us to feel empathy.
Later on, Zak and his team designed an experiment to determine whether it’s possible to “hack” oxytocin and induce cooperative behaviour in people.
What they discovered was incredible. When hearing stories that are driven by characters, the brain releases much more oxytocin than when hearing neutral stories.
But that’s not all – they also found that how much oxytocin is in your brain determines how much money you’re willing to give to charity.
And finally, in another study, Zak found that stories that create tension cause the audience to empathize with the characters – and actually take on the emotions and mimic the actions of those characters.
Stories also help people to remember information, especially if they’re personally relevant to the audience. Another psychologist, Dan Johnson, found that telling stories creates memory anchors that people can return to in order to recall information. During my days in the psychology program at UBC, we learned that semantic encoding – where your brain processes the meaning of something, not just the words or images – is the best memory device there is.
Now that’s a lot of science-y stuff there, but the big takeaway is that stories, especially emotionally charged stories, create an immersive experience that makes your brain go nuts (in a good way).
What This Means for Business Owners
Well, this is going to sound fairly obvious, but if you want people to remember you and buy your products and services, telling stories is a great way to do it.
From a business standpoint, storytelling does a lot of things.
First of all, stories are a non-threatening way of communicating your message. Nobody likes reading an ad, but everyone loves a good story. With an ad, you know that you’re going to be sold something, so you put yourself on high alert to reject whatever is being said. Stories are comforting – they tell us that we are safe, and that it’s okay to tune in and listen.
Secondly, stories are much easier to remember than just rote information. Studies show that if you give someone a random list of facts to memorize, they’ll likely remember about 20% of the list on average – but if you convey that same set of facts in the form of a story, their recall jumps to 80%.
Stories are also intensely immersive. Scientists have done brain scans of people as they’re reading and listening to stories, and the findings have been incredible.
When reading a story, you’d expect that certain parts of the brain would light up on a brain scan: The occipital lobe (which is where visual processing happens) and the auditory cortex (where auditory processing happens).
But what we see, instead, is that nearly every part of the brain lights up (indicating activity) when we’re told a story.
How do scientists explain this?
Quite simply: Your brain literally can’t tell the difference between a story you are being told and an event you are actually experiencing.
And personally, I find that fascinating.
The pattern of brain activation we see in response to a story is exactly the same pattern that happens when people experience an event. When you’re being told a story, your brain acts as if the events in the story are actually happening to you. And because you perceive the event as something that is actually happening to you, you pay very close attention to it. You feel the story, and its emotional weight, as if it were your own life.
That means if you want people to pay attention to you, to feel an emotional connection with you, and to be motivated to do business with you, storytelling is a great way to do it.
Where Can You Find Stories?
Stories are everywhere – all you have to do is look.
The logical first place to start is to mine your own life. What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you this week? How can you use that story to convey an idea about your business?
If you come up empty after mining your own life, then it’s time to break out the history books. There are interesting stories all throughout history. The key here is to find a story that hasn’t been told as much as it should be, or to tell a familiar story in a new way, with a new theme.
Or you could mine the lives of people close to you – you could tell stories about your parents, your kids, your friends, or even people on the street. The key here, though, is to get permission to tell a story if you had no direct part in it.
And finally, if all else fails, you can simply make up a story. As long as you make it clear that the story you’re telling is fictional, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with inventing plots and characters to use in your marketing. You can also make up details and insert them into real stories, but again, you have to make it absolutely clear to your audience that you’ve taken some artistic liberties with the facts.
People make sense of the world through stories. So make sure you’re telling a good one.
What kinds of stories do you like to tell in your marketing? What’s holding you back from telling more stories?