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Does the content you create burrow into brains, slam into cells, and trigger an exciting cavalcade of chemicals? If it tells a great story, it can.

But marketers often confuse information for story. Marketing campaigns, direct mail, email newsletters help you do much more than simply relay information. They are communication tools that help you establish a connection with your audience.

In an ideal world, every interaction with your audience leaves a lasting impression. In reality, only those interactions that foster a connection do. So, what’s the most efficient shortcut to that connection? Brand storytelling.

We want to help you make the strongest impact with every piece of content you create, so we’re diving into the science of brand storytelling to teach you how to tell stories that will make the most impact with your audience.

Building Trust Through Brand Storytelling

Before we dive into the science of brand storytelling, let’s address the ultimate goal of all content: to build a relationship with your customers. We know consumers want to work with brands whose values they share, who can provide expert advice and take consumers from point A to point B as painlessly as possible. But the road from passive consumer to active customer starts with your relationship.

Content is one of the best ways to establish a relationship. You may use it to demonstrate your knowledge, help your audience do something, or introduce your culture or brand. No matter the subject, you want to deliver that message in the most effective manner. This is where brand storytelling gives you an advantage.

When you translate your message into compelling stories, you are speaking in a language that your audience’s brains and bodies instinctively understand. This intrinsic recognition is what fosters their connection to you. It’s what tells them you are a familiar friend—not a nuisance to ignore.

The Science Behind Brand Storytelling

Humans are scientifically hardwired for stories—think of the earliest cave paintings. But why? Why do stories captivate us? Because they affect our biology. A good story isn’t just an entertaining experience. It’s a physical experience that affects our emotions and—most importantly—can change our behavior.

This is well demonstrated in the work of Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist and professor at Claremont Graduate University, who is a pioneer in the study of stories and their effect on humans.

In a 2015 study, Zak tested the power of story and its effect on charitable giving. He had participants watch motion graphics delivering two types of stories: 1) a dramatic narrative about a father and son 2) a simple story depicting the father and son at the zoo. After viewing the stories, participants were invited to donate money to strangers.

The study revealed the powerful affect of storytelling. The dramatic narrative caused viewers’ brains to release two incredibly powerful chemicals: oxytocin and cortisol.

Why? The experience of hearing and seeing a human narrative allowed viewers to put themselves in the story, which increased their oxytocin and, therefore, empathy. (This also aligns with neural coupling, in which the brain activity of someone listening to a story begins to mirror the person who’s telling the story.)

While oxytocin is the feel-good “love” chemical, the conflict in the narrative increased cortisol, the stress chemical. This may sound negative, but cortisol is important because stress causes humans to be on high alert and pay attention, making the viewers more invested in the story. Combined, these two chemicals not only shaped emotions but influenced viewer behavior.

After viewing the dramatic narrative, viewers were more eager to donate money. (The power of these chemicals also confirmed findings of Zak’s 2007 study, in which participants injected with oxytocin became 80% more generous.)

Additional research has also found storytelling to be a useful behavior-changing tool. A 2011 University of Massachusetts Medical study found that storytelling swayed patients to better control their blood pressure. And a 2013 Penn State study found that storytelling helped improve medical students’ attitudes toward treating dementia patients.

Connection, trust, empathy, action: This is the inherent power of storytelling—if you tell the right story.

The Formula for Great Brand Storytelling

Now, here’s the kicker. Remember that Zak presented two stories to the viewers. That dramatic narrative contained conflict and resolution. The second, about the father and the son at the zoo, had none. It basically just followed their actions: visiting one animal, then the next. There was no compelling narrative to trigger those chemicals.

But the dramatic story full of conflict, struggle, and tension captured the audience. Therefore, the key to good brand storytelling is a stimulating story.

According to Zak, there are two keys to a powerful story:

  1. It needs to capture attention.
  2. It should transport us to the world.

A 2014 Johns Hopkins study of popular Super Bowl ads found that the key to popularity wasn’t humor or a crazy stunt, it was the type of stories that followed a dramatic arc. For this, let’s refer to Gustav Freytag’s pyramid, which you might remember this from English class.

classic story structure

This classic story structure includes:

Exposition: This sets the scene, detailing who or what the story is about.

Rising action: These are the events that lead to the climax, the conflict, etc.

Climax: This is the turning point.

Falling Action: This is where the conflict unravels.

Denouement: This is the resolution.

This is the most satisfying story structure because it provides everything we crave: intrigue, action, and resolution. (Note that a great ending or resolution triggers a release dopamine, the feel-good reward chemical.)

How to Apply the Arc to Brand Storytelling

It may seem like this structure is difficult to master in marketing, as opposed to a novel or screenplay, but there are plenty of practical applications for marketing, both internally and externally.

Storytelling can be used for:

    • Sales collateral: Case studies or other content to prove your benefit.
    • Education: Blogs, articles, infographics, explainer videos, or any instance in which you need to communicate concepts clearly.
    • Entertainment: Content to delight customers or communicate your brand personality.
    • Culture Marketing: Content to tell the story of who you are to current/potential customers and/or employees.
    • Behavior influence: You may use storytelling for positive reinforcement (to increase a behavior) or negative reinforcement (to prevent a behavior).

No matter the application, you can apply the elements of a dramatic narrative to every piece of content you create. Here are 6 ways to do it:

  1. Vet your ideas: To make sure you’re telling the most compelling story possible, ask yourself:
    • Why do I want to tell this story?
    • What’s my unique angle?
    • What value will this provide to my audience?
    • What should my audience take away from this?
  2. Tell a single story: Don’t confuse the reader by trying to put too much in. A single, powerful narrative is more effective than 10 random anecdotes.
  3. Tell stories your audience will relate to: A good story triggers empathy and connection, but you can make it even more enticing by telling stories about subjects your audience is already interested in. Craft content around the issues, interests, or pain points your audience regularly faces. (Find out how to build audience personas which will help you identify these.)
  4. Start with an emotional hook: Use the first 100 words of your article or 15 seconds of your video to grab their attention and trigger that oxytocin and cortisol. Pro-tip: Conflict always creates an emotional response and personal anecdotes, powerful statistics, or provocative questions are a great way to do this.
  5. Create a setup and payoff: Remember that the story resolution triggers that reward response. If you can lead with an emotional hook, get them invested in the story, they’ll want to follow it through to the end.
  6. Be human: Empathy is a human emotion. Make sure your brand voice, language, and empathy is also reflected in the way you tell your story.

Brand storytelling can be challenging and exciting, but always remember the real reason you’re telling stories: To foster a connection and build a strong, trusting relationship.