The Psychology of Stories: The Storytelling Formula Our Brains Crave
by Shane Jones
Told any good stories lately?
No? Well you might want to start.
Stories are more than simple fairy tales. Turns out, they actually alter our brains, and can even change the way we think and act.
Storytelling is a community act that involves sharing knowledge and values. It's one of the most unifying elements of mankind, central to human existence, taking place in every known culture in the world.
Here’s the psychology behind stories, and how you can craft a story for your brand that engages your customers and drives conversions.
The Psychology of Stories
Your brain is programmed to recognize patterns of information (human faces, letters, music notes, etc.) and assign them meaning (your mother’s face, the alphabet, the Star Spangled Banner, etc.)
Stories, too, are recognizable patterns, and we use them to find meaning in the world around us. We see ourselves in them, and the stories we hear become personal to us.
Stories are so near and dear to us, in fact, that we even invent them when they’re not actually there.
In 1944, 34 Massachusetts college students were shown a short film with two triangles and a circle moving across the screen. They were then asked to describe the scene. All but one described the movements with elaborate, human narratives, including:
- The two triangles were men fighting as a woman (the circle) tried to escape.
- The circle was “worried.”
- The circle and the little triangle were “innocent young things.”
- The big triangle felt “rage and frustration.”
This study demonstrates our tendency to personify abstract shapes and seek ourselves in the objects around us. This is called pareidolia, or “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist.” It’s what happens when you see a face in an electric outlet, or when you see shapes in the clouds.
Basically, we’re obsessed with the human story and want to hear it all the time.
Why are we so in love with human stories? Because they activate our minds. Stories can activate parts of our brains that give us sensory experiences and influence our way of thinking.
Stories Create Sensory Experiences
Forget virtual reality. Our brains can put us inside of stories all on their own.
When we consume uninteresting information, like listening to a presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part of our brain called the Wernicke’s area is activated to translate the words into meaning. And that’s about all that happens.
But when we hear a story, our brains change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts activated, but so are whatever areas that would be used if you were actually in the story yourself.
For example, if a delicious entrée makes a cameo in the story, your sensory cortex is activated, making you smell and taste the dish. If the story involves motion, your motor cortex responds. Your brain has the power to take stories and make you experience them as though they were real.
In this way, you are the main character of every story you ever hear. And that’s perfect, because it means you can tell your brand story -- and everyone in the audience can be the hero.
Stories Influence Our Way of Thinking
And the brain doesn’t just stop at experiences. When listening to impactful stories, your brain can actually cause you to develop thoughts, opinions, and ideas that align with the person telling the story.
When we tell stories to others that have really influenced our way of thinking, we can actually have the same effect on our audience, as well. The brains of the storyteller and the story listener can actually synchronize, says Princeton's Uri Hasson:
“By simply telling a story, [a person] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”
By telling a great story, you can actually change the way your audience thinks and even behaves with your brand.
Stories Translate to Sales
Stories can make your target customers the main characters, and even change the way they think and feel. If you do it right, storytelling could serve to be a really powerful marketing tool.
As a content marketer or copywriter, you can use stories to better engage your audience and increase your bottom line. If customers can see themselves as characters in your story, they’ll be more likely to adopt your product and experience the happy ending you offer.
How to Develop Your Story
But where do you start?
Unfortunately, most information isn’t nicely packaged in story format. As a marketer, you’ll most likely start with a handful of facts instead. (Our insurance is cheaper than competitors’, our product will help you lose weight, our service will save you time, etc.).
Though these concepts aren’t stories themselves, they still provide a great storytelling opportunity. By adding context to your stats, you can show your audience who you are and what you offer in a storyline.
How do you do this? You READ!
R-Research Your Target Audience
The single most important part of your story has nothing to do with the story itself, but the audience you’re telling it to. You can have a great, well-crafted story, but if it doesn’t line up with your audience, it won’t mean a thing for your conversions.
You need to have a sense of who your prospective customer might be. By interviewing people in your target audience (working moms, college students, small business owners, etc.), you can get an idea of who they are, how they speak, and what they care about. Then you can craft a story with which they might empathize.
You can use a variety of methods to interview your target market, including surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, social media, etc. Ask them questions about the things that are most important to them, such as their work, families, hobbies, and frustrations.
You’re kind of working backwards in a way. By getting to know your audience, you’re getting to know the main character of your story. After that, you develop your actual storyline.
E-Establish Your Story
Once you’ve done your research, you need to craft a story that corresponds with your findings. This is often the hardest part -- creating a story that the company wants to tell, but that also appeals to consumers.
The Storytelling Formula
The best product stories are snapshots of a world improved by using the product or service. You need to set up your story to show:
- A problem that people have, which your product or service can solve
- A way for someone to easily access that product or service
- A world in which your product or service has made the problem disappear
But that’s not all you have to do. Remember how we said earlier that the brain recognizes a story as a pattern? You need to also make sure that you present the traditional story structure so that the brain recognizes the pattern and can work its magic.
That means framing your story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. You also need to include common story elements like character, conflict, resolution, and plot.
It sounds exhausting, but never fear! There’s an easy formula for spinning all of these elements into a comprehensive story:
- Your beginning should introduce a character with a problem that your product or service will resolve. That problem is the conflict.
- The middle should involve a character adopting your solution. This is the high point of your story’s plot.
- The ending should show the character benefiting from using the solution. That’s your resolution.
This storytelling formula is by no means unique to telling stories for marketing purposes. In fact, it’s the basic structure of just about every story you’ve ever heard. Consider the fairy tale of Cinderella:
- Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters and dreams of a better life. (Beginning - introduces the character and the problem)
- Cinderella is visited by her fairy godmother and meets her Prince Charming at the ball, leaving one of her glass slippers behind. (Middle - introduces the solution, drives the plot)
- Prince Charming uses the glass slipper to find Cinderella, and they live happily ever after. (End - reaping the benefits of the solution, bringing a sense of resolution)
You can use a similar format for your company story. Take Chipotle’s animated short film, “Back to the Start,” for instance.
“Back to the Start” depicts a farmer who realizes that he needs to change his methods if he wants to cultivate a better world. It tells the story of him going “back to the start” to approach farming in a more natural and sustainable way.
Here’s what the story looks like from a formula perspective:
- A farmer allows his humane farm to be transformed into a factory-style farm, supplying his product to other industrial factories. (Beginning - introduces the character and the problem)
- The farmer realizes the error of his ways and wants to change. (Middle - introduces the solution, drives the plot)
- The farmer goes back toward more sustainable methods and supplies his product to Chipotle. (End - reaping the benefits of the solution, bringing a sense of resolution)
The spot was Chipotle’s first national ad, and it won the Cannes Film Lions Grand Prix. It aired in 2012 and has gained more than 8 million views on YouTube.
Why does it work so well? Because it’s more than an ad for a product -- it’s like a trailer for the brand.
According to Reid Holmes, executive creative director at Campbell Mithun, longer-length online spots like Chipotle’s are “an entertaining way to teach consumers about what you do and who you are as a brand, not just what you sell.”
Once you’ve established your framework, you need to add in some little details that give it context and make it seem more authentic.
A story without personalized details fails to create context, and ultimately fails to make a connection. That’s why people are 14% more likely to interact with a personalized e-mail,and they’re 10% more likely to convert when they receive one.
Don’t miss the mark here. You have customers who align with your brand. Consider things they might enjoy that are non-related to your product or service, and how you can incorporate them into your story.
Consider Home Depot. Though not necessarily part of a story, Home Depot does a great job adding personal details on its Twitter feed. Not only does the feed promote Home Depot’s deals and specials, but it also promotes non-hardware-related articles that are really successful with Home Depot’s clientele.
Why? Because customers who align with the Home Depot brand also enjoy DIY projects, contests, and family holidays. And Home Depot knows it. For customers, this makes Home Depot seem less like a company and more like a friend with whom they have things in common.
You can do this too, based off that research you gathered. Do your customers care about being healthy? Find a way to tie that in to your story. Are your customers mostly parents? Find a way to use that to your advantage. Do your customers face a common struggle that’s unrelated to your product? Incorporate that into the plot somehow.
This way, you can create a story that advertises your brand the way you want while staying relevant to your customers. Sounds like a recipe for conversions to me.
Finally, you have to get the story out. Just like a show needs an audience, a story needs a listener. Without that audience, your story means nothing.
Thanks to the internet, there are a dozen ways of distributing your story to the masses. But how do you know which outlet is the best for you? This goes back to the research step. By conducting that research in the beginning, you already gained insight as to where your target audience spends their time.
Maybe a lot of your audience members spend their time networking on LinkedIn, or maybe they spend hours pinning on Pinterest. Publish your story wherever your audience can most easily “randomly” stumble upon it. I highly recommend making one of those places your own website -- like on your blog. This is space you own, "owned media," and is more reliable than rented space (like ads) or earned media (that you can't count on always receiving).
This digital age means that you have a lot of flexibility in how you present your story, as well. You can offer articles, videos, cartoons, drawings -- anything you can think of, really, as long as it appeals to your audience. Your mission is to use the web and emerging technologies to engage your audience and drive those conversions.
Stories are such a great marketing tactic because they’re so universal. Everyone loves a good story, because everyone is programmed to. Stories light up our brains and change our lives. If you tell it right, your brand story can improve people’s lives and your business at the same time.