What’s your favourite founder’s story? Could be Virgin, Innocent, Glossier…all businesses with great stories.
Now, what about their best revenue numbers, or EBITDA?
Why is that?
Your brain gets more excited by stories
When you hear facts and data, then a few bits of your brain light up. If you’re fascinated by this stuff, then it’s the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.
But when you hear a story, it’s like Blackpool illuminations in there with the other sensory areas of the brain lighting up.
Turns out your brain doesn’t distinguish between reading or hearing a story and experiencing it in real life. When you read a sentence about kicking the football down the field, the same parts light up as if you were actually kicking a ball down the field.
Why does it matter?
Data speaks to our intellect. It’s all very logical.
Stories stir imagination and feelings. And emotion is a necessary ingredient in pretty much every decision we make.
The businesses that stir our imagination and feelings tend to be the ones we feel the most loyalty to, the most engaged with. It’s why you probably don’t have much attachment to your water company, but care a lot about your local coffee shop or baker.
What must your story do?
When we trust someone, or they do us a kindness, the brain generates oxytocin. This chemical enhances our sense of empathy, our ability to experience the same emotions as others. We’ve only all survived this long as a species because we’ve depended on each other, helped each other out.
Empathy leads to co-operation.
And for a business, co-operation translates to actions. It might be sales, or just signing up right now to your email list. It might be sharing your content. But your story made them care enough to do things.
Science proves what stories are doing
I’ve already said that the brain lights up differently when you read or listen to a story. Research also shows that when people connect with a story, then it prompts the brain to start generating oxytocin.
You know when it’s happening: you begin to care about what’s going on that story, and what’s happening to the people involved. Just you don’t know that’s what your brain is up to.
If your story does nothing else, it must do this
Ben is two years old and dying.
His father doesn’t know if the brain tumour will take him from them in one month or six. They’re finding it really hard to be joyful around him, but know that they have to make the most of whatever time is left.
Now, thankfully, in my life, this is a story, but one that is probably being played out somewhere today (and in the original research was based on a real family). Even if we have no direct experience of this situation, it would be hard to think of not feeling empathy for the position.
The first thing though is that it has captured your attention. Without that, you’ll never get to even hearing Ben’s story, let alone caring about it. You can’t just have one attention-grabbing moment or headline though, and then go into a list of product characteristics.
You must have two other ingredients. Do not skip these.
Tension is your friend
Ever tried watching an older movie with a younger person? One where the credits are all upfront before you get to any action?
You’ve lost them before the first actor hits the screen. As time goes on and we don’t see this structure any more, then it won’t just be younger people who don’t love them.
The real challenge, besides no action? No tension.
A story needs tension to get you paying attention and keep your attention. Without that, then you’re just in the endless scrolling universe. You have to start with tension, then keep just turning it up a little till people are hooked.
Turning up the tension keeps the attention.
The second ingredient: people need people
The Oxo Family. The Tetley Teafolk. The Meerkats.
There’s a reason the advertising world uses characters, and that’s because we can care more about characters than characteristics. When you’ve got our attention, you’ve built the tension, it’ll all be for nothing if we don’t care about the people that are involved.
Whether you tell your story as a founder, the story of a team member or just a character you make up, give people someone to care about in whatever is being thrown at them.
So, why is storytelling still important in 2020?
The simple answer is storytelling is still important because people still connect with stories in a way they’ll never connect with data. We are hardwired for stories, going back to the time of the cavemen. It’s just about getting their attention, making them care, and keeping them interested.
So make friends with oxytocin, ramp up the tension and get people gripped by what you do.
Need some starting points for your storytelling?
I would think about your voice, writing how you sound and not like some corporate automaton. Then just take a pause to think about what a brand story needs, and then what the difference is between your brand story and your brand stories.
If you want to read more about the research behind this, and the detail of the story of Ben and his father, then check out the research from Paul Zak, who is a leader in this field. His work is inspiring to keep working on telling stories, and inspired this post. He applies neuroscience to solving real-world problems and always has something fascinating to read and think about.