Robert McKee, an author, lecturer, and story consultant, once said, “storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today” … but why is this the case? In this article, we will discuss elements from the psychology of storytelling, to explain why it is so effective. 

It’s a natural way to communicate

First and foremost, it is the most natural form of communication. We use it all the time in social settings, recalling who did what to who, or what happened when. Our stories usually start with background information, explain what happened, then either describe how it ended, or will likely end.

It engages our brain

It is because we use storytelling so much in our day-to-day lives, that our brains have evolved to engage and respond to it, as evidenced by brain imaging studies. For example, research has suggested that when we read or are told a series of facts, the areas of our brain associated with language production and comprehension are activated , showing that we are understanding the words.

However, when we hear a narrative, parts of the brain associated with immersion and mentalising (rationalising others’ behaviour by interpreting what they’re thinking/feeling) are also activated. It shows that when we are taken through a topic in the form of a narrative, we become much more personally involved in the message, which often means greater engagement. This “extended language network” that responds to storytelling has also been said to improve memorability.

It adds emotion

Another explanation is that storytelling carries emotion by uncovering the “why”. The cause, reason, or purpose for which you are telling the story. Why do you do what you do? Why should people care? In his TED talk, Simon Sinek explains how this is a format people are more likely to engage with because it allows them to understand your thoughts, goals and beliefs. Rather than just describing what your product or idea is, by explaining the why, it allows you to connect on an emotional level.

As an example, without storytelling, information is often just described as a series of objective facts, such as:

This is our new computer; it is very advanced with a keyboard and a camera.

Which is fine if the audience are already super invested in the topic. But the truth is, usually the audience is not super invested. You are there to persuade them to become invested. Sinek gives a classic Apple style pitch, to show how much the messaging improves, simply by incorporating the why:

“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we do this is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make good computers. Want to buy one?”

His focus moves to the brand itself which elevates the product. It becomes less about what it is and more about what it stands for. It’s exciting, special, different, and challenging. Simon concludes “It explains why everyone is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. But we’re also perfectly comfortable buying an MP3 player from Apple, or a phone from Apple.”

It influences decision making

The parts of the brain that deal with emotion are involved in decision making, so if we can create emotional connections within our stories, we should more easily encourage behaviour. Research by Paul Zak also found that if we resonate or identify with what is being said, we release the hormone Oxytocin which is associated with empathy and motivates us to act pro-socially.  It shows how powerful a story that people relate to can be in encouraging certain human behaviours.

In summary, storytelling is a great way to communicate your message, and is used very successfully in many business situations and contexts. At Maxwell Rogers, we have been crafting stories for the business community for 20 years.  We support many clients with their ambitions, pushing the art of storytelling as a means for achieving them. We will continue to explore the topic of storytelling in our blogs throughout the year. In the meantime, however, if you have any questions or want to talk to us further, email us at studio@maxwellrogers.co.uk.

References

Ferstl EC, Neumann J, Bogler C, von Cramon DY. The extended language network: a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies on text comprehension. Hum Brain Mapp. 2008 May;29(5):581-93. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20422. PMID: 17557297; PMCID: PMC2878642.

Gupta, R., Koscik, T. R., Bechara, A., & Tranel, D. (2011). The amygdala and decision-making. Neuropsychologia49(4), 760–766. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.09.029

Hasson U, Egidi G, Marelli M, Willems RM. Grounding the neurobiology of language in first principles: The necessity of non-language-centric explanations for language comprehension. Cognition. 2018 Nov;180:135-157. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.018. Epub 2018 Jul 24. PMID: 30053570; PMCID: PMC6145924.

Martinez-Conde, S., Alexander, R., Blum, D., Britton, N., Lipska, B., & Quirk, G. et al. (2019). The Storytelling Brain: How Neuroscience Stories Help Bridge the Gap between Research and Society. The Journal Of Neuroscience39(42), 8285-8290. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.1180-19.2019

MccKee, R. Is It Possible to Bring Storytelling Into Marketing? [TV].

Sinek, S. (2009). How great leaders inspire action. Presentation, TEDxPuget Sound.

Zak P. J. (2015). Why inspiring stories make us react: the neuroscience of narrative. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science2015, 2.

 

 

 

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