The Science of Storytelling

I just celebrated the holidays with my extended family. If my experience is anything like yours, we spent most of the time catching up with each other, talking about what is going on with our families and our jobs. Whether we realized it or not, we were telling stories. Stories that knit together families and communities in ways that create strong connections.

And I can prove it.

There is a surprising amount of science behind how and why we connect with stories. Neuroscientific studies actually show how the brain lights up when we listen to stories – as if we are experiencing what we are hearing about. The more senses we can connect with (seeing the puppy, feeling the rush of air, smelling the bacon, touching a sticky spoon, hearing “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox) the more areas of the brain that light up – and the bigger the engagement.

You ever hear how Uncle Frank met Auntie Loo?

No? Uncle Frank was at a bar, just home from the Army, when in walks this gorgeous brunette. He gets a handful of change from the bartender and cranks up the jukebox with classic rock and roll. Pretty soon, everyone is dancing, including the brunette. Uncle Frank cuts in and steals the brunette away from this big muscle-head of a guy, Mikey DiMello.

Now, you gotta remember, Uncle Frank is this skinny nothing of a kid, looks like he would blow over in a good storm. And Mikey is huge. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Monday-night wresting huge. But Uncle Frank was smooth, with that young and hungry rock-n-roll singer look. And Uncle Frank could dance. Oh…could that guy move around the floor.

So Uncle Frank steals away the brunette…Her name? Louisa Marie, but Uncle Frank told her that “she didn’t look like a Louisa Marie” so he started calling her Loo…He steals her right out from under Mikey and dances with her all night. Next thing you know….

Wait? You mean you want to hear how the rest of the story goes?

What does that mean to you?

If you are really looking to connect with the hearts and minds of your customers, you need to write a compelling story – a story that people can’t wait to hear. According to an article by Paul. J. Zak published in the Harvard Business Review, you really can connect on a deep level by presenting what he calls a “human-scale story.” His research demonstrates how humans connect on a biological level when our brains process a neurochemical called oxytocin.

Oxytocin, not Oxycontin/Oxycodone

Oxytocin should not be confused with Oxycontin/Oxycodone, the pain-relieving opiate-derivative which can be very addictive. Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus. It is often called the “cuddle hormone” or the “bonding hormone” because it can acutally cause us to feel a connection, empathy, or trust.

The other thing about oxytocin, it signals us that it’s okay to feel this way because others think it’s okay to feel this way. It makes us feel empathy for our group. Numerous studies show that when test subjects are administered a does of oxytocin, they are more likely to react strongly and favorably to people they perceive as like them.

As a marketer, that is the Holy Grail. Social proof – with real scientific proof backing us up on storytelling as engagement.

How do we make this connection?

Neurobiological studies have shown a repeatable way to hook deeply into the brain – and create a connection.

First, we have to get – and sustain – attention.

This is by far the biggest hurdle in our 100-mph-hair-on-fire society. You need people to stop, be in the moment, and agree that what your hero is worth a moment or two of their time.

We have to grab onto the audience and get them to agree that Walter White or Clark Kent – or Uncle Frank is worth spending some precious time with.

Second, you have to create tension in the narrative.

You introduced your character or your problem. Now you have to get Clark Kent out of the phone booth and ready to save the world. Or find out if Uncle Frank gets the girl or ends up beat up in the alley.

Like all good stories, there has to be a direction, a story arc, a narrative that keeps your listener/reader turning the page or tuning in.

Third, you have to be ready to direct the connection.

We have bought into the Superman myth and want to save the world. As a storyteller (or marketer), it’s now up to you to direct that energy. You set up the after-party at the fan page or associated media show. AMC has done a brilliant job of this with their The Walking Dead fan show Talking Dead. Obsessed fans can rehash the show with the actors and special guests and debate the meaning of story elements. Other shows such as The Good Wife, have an active fan base on Facebook and let fans comment on plot lines and character development.

The best engagement has us not only wanting to make sure that Superman gets out of the phone booth in time to save the world, we want to BE Superman or the winning race driver or feel the sense of power as Walter White builds his empire.

Is there a dark side to oxytocin?

Surprisingly, like Luke Skywalker, you have to use The Force for good not evil. Remember those studies I cited earlier, where people had warm, fuzzy feelings? Several studies highlight how oxytocin can also inflame feelings of “my group is better than your group” and skew feelings toward racial, ethnic, and gender bias.

Neuroscientists are studying the sociological implications of oxytocin and how this cuddle hormone can actually inflame nationalism and racism. Use The Force for good.

So…do you want to know what happens with Uncle Frank and Aunt Loo…?

You hear about how it was Cousin Henry’s only suit and he had to borrow his father’s polyester Leisure suit to go on an interview. How Aunt Loo was engaged to Mikey the muscle guy, but at the end of the night, she left the bar with Uncle Frank and they headed to an all-night cafe way out on Highway 12 for midnight burgers and coffee.

“She ate her burger like a lumberjack,” says Uncle Frank, “I didn’t know how she stayed so tiny – like a hummingbird.”

“Mikey didn’t mind how I ate, ” says Aunt Loo, “and he had a really sweet yellow Corvette convertible and not that hunk a junk Chevy you were driving back then”

“I coulda used a convertible,” says Uncle Frank. “Aunt Loo’s hair smelled like cigarettes and beer.” He squeezed Aunt Loo’s hand, “but that smelled better than any perfume in the world.”

So,  Loo broke it off that week  with Mikey and she an Uncle Frank have been married for 52 years this February.

You’ve heard this story (or something like it) in your own family. Every time it gets told, the details get richer.

I bet I got your brain to light up.





3 thoughts on “The Science of Storytelling”

    1. Elvis

      You are so right about a lot of background stories. When I talk to companies, they are so surprised that I find their founding/early years stories so interesting – and they are even more surprised when I tell them that their story needs to be part of their branding.

      Unless price is the absolute only buying metric, people buy what they trust and know – even in commodity items. When you think of cookies (the eating kind, not the digital kind..;> ), you probably think back to your childhood. A favorite local bakery? A package of Oreos? Your grandmother’s recipe? Those are all brands that you know and already have your trust.

      Breaking through on a new product requires that same process of trust-building. First the product comes to your attention, then you notice others talking about it, maybe you get a sample to try, THEN and only then are you ready to buy. The founder’s story – in fact all the stories you tell about your business – are part of that attention/awareness/trial/sales process.

      Is it sales? Sure. Just like the Bible tells us stories to get our attention and awareness. Just like celebrity cooking shows that have them using some new ingredient. Just like a little store in East Podunk that proudly boasts “Same Ownership for 68 Years!” Stories help form that attention/awareness/trust process.

      The word you chose – inspiring – is exactly right. Sometimes it takes an outsider for people to realize that they *do* have an inspiring story to tell.


    2. I think it’s fascinating research – but it only confirms what we already knew but couldn’t prove. People buy based on connections. Stories have been used to sell since ancient marketplaces.

      “Buy my corn! Freshest in the market! I use only the finest seeds and my fields get the best water. This corn will help your sons grow strong and your daughter’s become beauties!”

      I think the way we use stories today is a little more subtle. Is that good? Don’t know. But I do know that I like understanding that L.L.Bean was founded by a guy who couldn’t find a decent, reasonably priced pair of dry hunting boots.


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