Just 8 years ago no one searched for a storyteller. And if you did, it was usually for a party or maybe a conference. Not for a marketing campaign. In fact, it wasn’t even a recognised marketing discipline.
By 2013, 7% of all marketers worldwide were storytellers. By 2017, the total number of storytellers featured on LinkedIn had increased to 570,000.
Storytelling is touted as the silver-bullet to the problem of an increasingly automated world. It helps brands to stand out in the cacophony of companies clamouring for consumer attention.
Storytelling is a technique that promises to create a deep emotional connection with the reader, weaving together a brand’s history and values to create a tribe of loyal followers. But does it really work?
Storytelling has been around since the dawn of time. Right from when cavemen roamed the earth stories and fables have been told to instill rules, ethical codes, and even fear in the mind of the listener.
But why were we given stories instead of a simple list of rules? Stories stick. Not because they are more engaging. Not because they are more fun. They stick with us because of the way our brains are wired.
When we hear a story, we’d expect the language processing parts of the brain to be activated, but the sensory receptors in the brain are also activated.
For example; one-day last summer I took a stroll down the riverbank. As I walked along with the sun on my back, I bought an ice-cream from an ice-cream van. It was a vanilla ice-cream in a cone with chocolate sauce and a chocolate flake decorating it. As I started to eat it the ice cream the sun began to warm the sticky chocolate sauce which began dripping down the back of my hand.
Whilst reading this story, your motor cortex, the part of your brain that deals with motions will have activated. You may even have felt the emotions you’d feel if you really had the sticky sauce coursing down the back of your hand.
However, the benefits of storytelling don’t stop there. A story can put your whole brain to work, synchronising it with the brain of the storyteller. Uri Hasson, a Princeton Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, conducted an experiment in 2017 where he took a selection of participants and conducted an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan) whilst they watched one of two fast-paced BBC TV series. The Series’ were chosen for their engaging plots with twists and turns that delivered plenty of opportunities to monitor the brain’s reactions.
Later, the participants were recorded recounting the episode in the dark, whilst being scanned. This video was shown to new participants who hadn’t seen the original series/. They too were scanned as they listened and mentally reconstructed the show from what they were hearing.
Whilst this should involve very different cognitive processes, Hasson and his team found that the brain patterns in those recounting and those hearing the story were very similar in high emotion areas.
A comprehension test was also carried out on those hearing the story and those recounting it. The results demonstrated that the closer the brain patterns of the storyteller and the audience, the greater the comprehension of the audience. Fascinatingly, the same areas that are used to recall and reconstruct a memory are involved when we construct someone else’s memory from their story.
However, Uri also believes that successful communication of this type between two brains, whether it be the storyteller and the audience, the brand and the consumer or a viewer and an actress, is entirely dependent on a shared understanding.
However, today it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify this shared understanding. Our lives are so diverse, right down to the TV we watch, a shared background is more difficult to achieve. With algorithmically driven social media simply pushing similar content to that which we’ve already expressed an interest in, it’s possible that it’s becoming harder to identify and establish this essential shared understanding.
It’s now more important than ever for marketing teams to have a complete and thorough understanding of their audience.
Storytelling can be an intensely valuable tool, making content more exciting, strengthening relationships, and making brands more memorable. But for marketing teams to truly unlock the value of storytelling, they can’t afford to skip the stage where they understand who they’re talking to and create or identify a common shared experience first.