Story is how we understand what matters and how we give it meaning. Your marketing will be more impactful and powerful when you use stories to help your clients feel something.
Storytelling is not new. In fact, one could argue that it’s the oldest form of marketing in the world. Stories have been used for centuries to shape and create culture, to form and sculpt meaning and to inform the masses in ways that are easy to understand.
From Aesop and Ancient Greece to Walt Disney and Pixar, human beings gravitate towards stories well told.
Simply put, Stories work because of the way they impact our brain processes. They work because they make us feel something.
And when we feel something? We create a thought – either positive or negative that we remember.
When we remember feelings and we associate those feelings and thoughts with someone or something – we are in a position to make a decision.
If you think about it, a sale is simply the act of asking your potential client or customer to make a decision.
They either buy your thing or they don’t.
The story is the way to put them in the buying state of mind. Or it can be a powerful tool to qualify the sale (on an emotional level) before it happens.
There was a study done in the 1980s on people who had traumatic brain injuries to the centre part of their brain – the part of their brain where we experience and create emotions.
Medically, the patients fully recovered. They were able to get up and walk out of the hospital and breathe and perform basic bodily functions with no assistance.
They were able to use rational thinking to do things like math and multiplication. They could read a book and they could drive a car.
But they couldn’t make decisions about basic things like what to eat for lunch.
Because the emotional centre in their brain was compromised. And that means so too was the part of the brain that makes decisions.
Let’s reverse this for a moment.
If we know that compromising or altering that part of the brain results in the inability to make a decision – then imagine what happens when we are able to activate it!
When we tell Stories that form emotions – that is precisely what we are doing. We are activating the emotional, decision making centre in our customers and clients brains.
It’s only in the last few decades that neuroscience has started to really dive into the effectiveness of stories and why they impact our brains and decision making.
But there is general scientific consensus that it’s a super power emotionally, if only for the chemicals released when we engage in the act of both telling and hearing a Story.
A report published in Science Daily explains how the tone in which a story is told (or received) can have a major lasting impact on how a person remembers not only the story itself, but also specific details related to that story.
Essentially, what the report says is that your audience will hear or read the words you write, but most of what they are remembering is the emotion they are associating with those words. The storytelling chemicals produced allow the brain to, in a way, by-pass the rational and enter the emotional centre much more quickly.
The memories formed as a result of hearing Stories last longer and so do the emotional impacts.
Maybe this is why it doesn’t take much for me to cry when I think about a story that happened 20 years ago that was particularly sad. Have you had that experience? It’s because we formed neuro-pathways that hightail us to those emotions.
While we are talking about chemicals, let’s talk about two of the key ingredients for decision-making – cortisol and oxytocin.
Cortisol is our stress hormone. In fact, given our current pandemic, post-pandemic state, I’d hazard a guess that we are all in a state of elevated cortisol. It’s the chemical that is produced when we need to pay immediate attention to something stressful – like for example, if we are about to be hit by a bus or eaten by a tiger, or die in a pandemic.
When something stressful happens, our cortisol levels immediately rise which helps us stay attentive to the moment (biologically so we can react to preserve life).
This is the precise brain pattern that is stoked in pressure based sales.
Rising cortisol in our bodies is the emotional-chemical stew that is most closely associated with ‘the first sale’ or what marketers call ‘the top of the funnel’. Giovanni Rene Rodriguez wrote a great piece about our brains on storytelling for Forbes if you’d like to dig in further.
It’s why tactics like flash sales and timers work to get us to buy something. It’s why we can be pressured into ‘signing on the dotted line’ for a vehicle because the manager can’t guarantee that model will be available the next day.
It’s because that environment, that STORY they are telling about scarcity of resources, activates the cortisol in our brains.
(This is also why I’m much more a fan of permission based and empathy driven marketing. But we will get to that in a moment).
If cortisol is responsible for making us aware and alert to our emotions and surroundings, then oxytocin can be seen as the ‘closer chemical’ created through Story.
As I was doing my research, I discovered an incredibly geeky and exciting fact that there’s now a label for this type of study called neuroeconomics- where the whole idea is to study the links between brain processes and decision making in an economic sense.
The so-called father of neuroeconomics is Professor Paul Zak who has spoken at length about the role of oxytocin in how we ultimately make decisions that we feel good about.
See Professor Paul Zak’s TEDTalk on Trust, Morality and Oxytocin here.
In a nutshell, Zak shows how stories create oxytocin in our brains – which is the chemical responsible for EMPATHY.
When we watch a movie like Forrest Gump, for example, our oxytocin levels skyrocket, creating an empathetic response to Tom Hanks in the role. That empathy is what allows us to not only like and love the character, but also identify with him on an emotional level (even if we are nothing like Forrest Gump at all).
In studies conducted on oxytocin and dopamine (a close relative chemical), researchers found that subjects who heard stories or watched movies that produced elevated levels of oxytocin were much more likely to spend money and/or donate generously immediately thereafter.
So you see mastering the art and craft of storytelling will be an invaluable tool for your marketing. It’s the seat of emotion and it’s how we invite our clients and audiences closer to us and closer to a sale.
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