The science of storytelling

The science of storytelling

Everyone loves stories. A good story has the power to compel others, to inspire people, even to shape the world. They can comfort, connect, transform, destroy or even heal. Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone can tell it well. There is a science to it, though, a formula you can learn. Through this, you can develop your own method to tell your story.

Famous author Rudyard Kipling once said, “I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew), their names are what and why and when and how and where and who.”

Even this great master of storytelling understood that all stories have a basic structure and answer fundamental questions about the who, the what, the when, and so forth. The facts of a story matter. However, buried beneath those facts is the true key to storytelling. It’s building an emotional connection with the reader.

Postcard stories

Take a look at whiskey brand Jack Daniels. All over the London Underground, you can see its campaign: Postcards from Lynchburg. Each postcard tells the story of the maker of Jack Daniels and the small town that it originates from. It adds depth to the brand and draws the reader in. How? Through emotive language and vivid description. You can almost read it with a Southern drawl.

Then there’s TED Talks. Ever seen one? You might think there’s magic in the air when the speaker talks, but it’s just great storytelling in action. The speaker relays a story, captures the audience’s imagination, and explains the lessons learned from that story.

The listener

But let’s consider the other side of the story. Because a key part of any story is the listener. After all, you need to know your audience to understand how to speak to them. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that people are always telling you what they really think (whether they know it or not).

We’re always broadcasting our inner thoughts. They are revealed through our attitude, our point of view whenever we volunteer it in an offhand manner. This is why you need to master the art of storytelling. To develop the discipline of knowing what to say and what not to.

The science

The science behind great stories is really quite simple. Ever been stuck watching a boring PowerPoint presentation? When that happens, two parts of your brain are activated: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Those are the parts that decode words into meaning. That’s it, nothing else.

Listen to a story and it’s a different matter. When someone tells a story, our brains light up with the activity and experiences mentioned in the tale. If the story contains a steaming bowl of tomato soup, our sensory cortex gets activated. If the protagonist of the story is running through twisted alleyways, our motion cortex springs to life.

Furthermore, the brains of the storyteller and the listener actually sync up during these moments. You can make people feel exactly what you’re experiencing. That’s incredibly powerful for a brand.

Ads which invoke an emotional response in consumers have been found to have a far greater influence on their intent to buy. TV ads that provoke emotion are three times and print ads are twice as effective. In fact, the likeability of an ad is the most predictive measure of if an ad will increase sales.

The structure of a story

Now let’s look at the ideal structure of a good story. All stories need to have a clear beginning, middle, and an end. You cannot tell an effective story unless you know where to start, where you plan to end up and the journey along the way. Without a clear structure, you risk meandering and wasting your audience’s time and attention span.

Here are the 10 principles behind storytelling. They’re based on the brilliant advice of Bobette Buster, a story consultant, lecturer, and screenwriter. He works with some of the major studios including Pixar, Disney and Sony Animation (to name a few). 

  1. Speak to me as a friend: keep your language simple and on your audience’s level.
  2. Remember the context: don’t forget to explain the time, place, and surroundings. Describe, don’t commentate on the scene. Try to use sensory descriptions so the listener can picture themselves there.
  3. Use active verbs: action is key… or more simply put, how would Hemmingway say it?
  4. Mix up: take two contrasting ideas, images or thoughts and mix them together. This can grab your audience’s attention from the get-go.
  5. Detail: what’s the one thing that captures the essence of your story? Remember, brains sync up when a story is told. So don’t be shy with the details of what you’re feeling or experiencing.
  6. The spark: reflect on the idea or experience that originally captivated you and hand it over to your audience. Let them carry the flame.
  7. Be vulnerable: don’t be scared to show emotion. Invite your audience to experience your doubt, confusion, sorrow, anger, joy, and delight.
  8. Use your senses: because your audience’s brains will respond to your sensory information make sure you use all your senses. It will create a deeper connection with the listener.
  9. Be yourself: authenticity is key. A story is as much about you as it is anything else.
  10. Let go: let your story build to its natural punchline and then end it. Leave your audience wanting more.

Where appropriate, you can use stats and other information to build the credibility of your story. Format your story to its appropriate channel – whether that’s a vlog, blog, Tweet or Instagram post. Also, get people involved in your story. User-generated content can be a powerful way of spreading your story’s message once it has been told.

Storytelling has been around since our caveman days. It is native to all of us. You just have to do it. Dare to be personal, to open yourself up and be vulnerable, and to listen to others’ stories as well.

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Arnt Eriksen. Simplifying the complexity
of marketing and communication.


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