Scientific Evidence That Supports The Use of Stories in Marketing

If you’re trying to wrap your head around why you should use storytelling to market your business, here’s some scientific research that could help influence your decision.

Stories Trigger Corresponding Parts of the Brain

Scientists have discovered that when we’re presented with cold, hard facts (e.g. Powerpoint bullets), two areas of the brain related to language and words are activated. The first, Broca’s area, is involved in the production of language, or language outputs, while the other, Wernicke’s area, is associated with the processing of words that we hear, or language inputs. However, when we hear or watch a story, other parts of the brain become alive.

Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area in the brain (Image from: thebasisformusic.wikispaces.com)

Amazingly, portions of our brain that are related to the corresponding aspects of a story are triggered when we listen to stories. For instance, if we listen to a portion of a story about an active event, such as “Tom threw the ball” or ”Harriet jumped onto her bed”, the motor cortex part of our brain becomes activated. What's even more amazing is that the activity is concentrated in different parts of the motor cortex depending on whether the action described in the story is related to the arm or to the leg.

Similarly, the sensory cortex is activated when descriptive metaphors such as “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” are used. However, that doesn’t occur when more mundane phrases such as “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands” were used.

Knowing that more parts of the brain are activated when we use stories means that we can engage our audiences better by using stories.

Professor Uri Hasson's Research on Brain Activity While Listening to Stories

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a team of scientists at Princeton University, led by Professor Uri Hasson, discovered that the brains of different people show similar activity when they hear the same story. In one of his studies, 5 people are first exposed to the same personal story, told aloud. Before the story begins, all five subjects show different brain activity, but once the story starts, their brain activity syncs up and becomes "aligned". Further tests expose the subjects to different components of the story - first, the story told backwards, then, nonsense sounds put into words, and then, scrambled sentences. Finally, they're told the real-life story. Only when they hear the latter do the high order parts of their brains begin to align. This shows that the alignment comes from more than just the sounds of the storyteller's voice. In a separate experiment, Hasson and his team discover the same results when Russian speakers and English speakers listened to the same story, told in their respective languages, proving that the response is not restricted purely to English speakers.

(image: TED.com)

(image: TED.com)

What's even more amazing is that brains sync up even when the story is paraphrased. In the experiment that revealed this phenomenon, subjects watched a scene of the TV show "Sherlock", and then described what they recalled of the show to someone else who had never seen it. The second person showed similar brain activity as the person recounting the story, both while they watched it, and as they retold it. Hasson summarizes his research by saying, "The people who we're coupled to define who we are", and warns that there's an inherent danger in listening to stories and opinions that are pre-aligned with our own.

What are the Implications of this Research for Marketers and Businesses?

The first, naturally, is for you to start using stories in your business! Whether your focus is marketing, leadership, sales or organizational behavior, the power of being able to make your audience align themselves in the way you want them to is already in your hands!

The second is to make your stories as interesting as possible. Keep your story simple and brief, but don’t be afraid to be descriptive to make it come alive. Storytelling can help you accomplish a lot in your attempt to motivate changes in thought and behavior.

The third is that there's danger in only listening to people who we're already pre-disposed to agreeing with (i.e. people who share our thoughts), as that echo chamber could blind us to the reality of our customers' needs, wants and behaviors. We always need to remain vigilant and keep ourselves attuned to what the market is saying to remain relevant.

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You can watch Professor Hasson describe his research in this TED talk.