I was 13 years old and watching Who’s the Boss? when I fell in love for the first time. But it wasn’t with Sam, Angela or even Mona — it was with Angela Bower’s job.
As a hot-shot marketing executive, she was always bringing home cool storyboards for commercials or blown-up photos from magazine ads, and it blew my mind that there was a business out there all about telling interesting stories and influencing people through them.
Outside of my favorite sitcom, the advertising world was having a creative renaissance. These were the days of Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial and Nike’s new “Just Do It” campaign. Angela’s job taught me that I could be a part of that magic. I always loved stories, as any kid does, and the idea that I could turn storytelling into a career was downright life-changing.
I would go on to build a career in advertising, but as time has passed, it feels like our industry has started to lose its way. It’s become more about chasing clicks and breaching privacy than creative expression. What happened to all the stories?
But a bigger question is why telling a story matters in the first place. What is it about stories that appeal to an audience and create brand loyalty? Why do we skip TV commercials but binge-watch our favorite shows, even though it’s the same medium?
What does storytelling do to our brains?
The science behind how storytelling affects our brains is fascinating; it’s almost involuntary. When you hear emotional stories, your brain releases oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for creating trust, recognition and bonding in humans. Oxytocin shows up when we’re in our most intimate interactions, like kissing a partner or breastfeeding. It’s powerful stuff and increases our empathy and trust. It’s the reason you cry about the old man in Up, even though he’s just an illustration.
Cortisol is also released to help focus your awareness and attention, and a dopamine hit rewards you when you follow along with the events of a story. It’s a veritable cocktail of hormones in there, all triggered by a powerful narrative and a hero.
When we hear or read stories, it ignites the parts of our brains that we would use if we were actually experiencing those events, whether that involves running, falling in love or eating a sandwich. We’re putting our motor or sensory cortexes to work, and those experiences are then stored in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that has powerful recall skills.
For marketers who love storytelling as much as Angela and I, here’s how to use this knowledge to craft better content.
Introduce your premise early.
If you want your audience to get invested in a story, you have to let them know what’s going on right off the bat. What’s the problem? Who are the characters? What’s the world like and why does it have to change? Introducing that promise of resolution is almost irresistible — the dopamine starts flowing when we follow a story to its conclusion.
Screenwriters I’ve spoken to have said you need to capture your reader within the first 10 pages of a script — or first 10% of a movie. For marketers, that timeframe is even shorter. When comparing branded content videos from a recent campaign, our team found that those in which the concept was presented immediately (within the first five seconds) outperformed those that explained the premise later on.
Use anecdotes to create emotional connections with your audience.
Whenever I’m doing a presentation, I like to kick things off with a personal story — not stats. Yeah, it’s putting myself in a vulnerable position to share something from my life with clients, but it’s a powerful way to create a human connection. An emotional reaction to the character in the story (or the speaker in a boardroom) is the catalyst for releasing oxytocin and creating a bond.
Nike’s recent campaign with Colin Kaepernick, which uses the NFL player’s protest as an example of standing up for what you believe in, won’t soon be forgotten. It connects our emotional reaction to Nike’s brand message for a powerful pairing.
Cast your brand as the supporting role.
It’s hard to get an audience to create an emotional connection with a jug of laundry detergent or a bag of chips. But that doesn’t mean your brand can’t play an important supporting role in your story. When brands are incorporated after the premise has been introduced and as supporting characters, engagement levels can be even higher than in content where the brand wasn’t mentioned at all. Think about how your brand could play the mentor, the villain or even the setting.
Storytelling may be an art, but there’s a biological component to it as well — our brains are wired this way. Whether you’re making a movie, writing a book or just trying to sell some jeans, it’s a quirk of the human condition that offers an opportunity for connection. With this knowledge and data in our pockets, we’re ready for the advertising renaissance 2.0. Get ready to embrace the science of storytelling — I think Angela Bower would be proud.