The power of a good story

September 13, 2012

Storytelling, in one form or another, has been around for as long as humans have been able to communicate – but we think it is under-utilised in the world of Marketing…

It has been said that: Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behaviour. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity.”

Scientists believe that we are hard-wired to pay attention to stories. In our hunter-gatherer days, we gained a huge evolutionary advantage when we developed the ability to communicate information with descriptive stories. Most animals rely on experience or direct observation to learn; a mother bear can’t tell her cub not to eat the red berries if he goes into the meadow. But humans can give each other detailed narratives about food, danger, and opportunities. It’s not surprising that evolution favoured those who could effectively use this form of communication.

Stories also engage our brains. One experiment found that stories that described vivid action lit up the same areas of a reader’s brain as those in a person performing that action.

If even half of this is true (and undoubtedly it is!) stories wield considerable power. All this research tells us that if you want to connect with your audience, you should incorporate a story. Case studies work wonders, so give one a try instead of the usual raft of facts and figures that aim to be persuasive.

What makes a good marketing story?

Not surprisingly, a marketing story needs a different approach than a novel or short story. You’ve got a limited amount of space and reader attention to work with, so you have to accomplish a lot in a few words.

Here’s are some ways to get around those limitations:

  • Use characters and problems already familiar to the reader. Roles like demanding customers, fussy kids, or impatient bosses don’t need a lot of description. They can convey a lot of information in a succinct way.
  • Be specific. The protagonist of the story should be much like the targeted buyer. Shape your story to persuade a well-defined customer.
  • Use vivid language. Vague descriptions and passive verbs are your enemy. Use vivid descriptors and active verbs to engage.
  • Set up the conflict, crisis, or threat. Engaging narratives feature an important conflict or threat that needs resolving, to keep us interested.
  • Make your customer the hero. In engaging stories, the hero resolves the issue despite difficult obstacles and long odds. In the best marketing stories, the product is the “weapon” used by the real hero — your customer. If your customer can project himself into the story and imagine using your product to achieve similar success, your story is a winner.