The human attachment to storytelling – and its relevance in PR & marketing

Humans are storytellers. We tell each other stories quite naturally as part of our everyday lives; we share not only words and plots, but emotions and experiences. We’ve been telling stories for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In fact, the world’s oldest recorded story was composed some 3,000 years ago and was discovered in the 1840s, in Mosul, Iraq.

But what is it about storytelling that is so compelling? And why, as humans, are we so intrinsically attached to stories?

Paul Zak PhD, author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, has spent the last several years seeking to understand the aforementioned. According to Zak, stories are an effective way of transmitting important information and values from one individual or community to the next. More importantly? Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain than those that simply state a set of facts.

Here’s an example:

When comparing an image of a painting alongside the title, artist’s name and year (read: facts) with an image of a painting alongside the artist’s personal story, the latter painting was deemed 11% more valuable than the former.

So, what does that mean for us as marketers? Put simply: knowing the artist – as a living, breathing human being – behind a painting makes it more valuable to the consumer.

You see, we respond much more positively to stories than we do to sales pitches. Nick Asbury, a writer for branding and design, agrees. In an article for Creative Review, Asbury writes: "tell people you’re here to sell them something and the defences go up. But say you’re going to tell a story and people relax."

Our founder, and storytelling advocate, Laura elaborates, "Making a list of facts and figures about your venue, event, exhibition or product is easy. Creating a narrative that ties together who you are, why you do what you do and which genuinely resonates with your target audience takes a great deal of insight and often, emotional intelligence. You must truly understand what motivates your audience, this can only be done through ongoing research and active listening. The best storytellers are the best listeners. It's then a case of hitting that sweet spot in the Venn diagram of what ignites interest in your customers and what you actually need/want to communicate; you get that right, you connect people with your narrative."

It’s all to do with our innate ability to empathise and place ourselves within the narrative. Facts and figures are hard to imagine, but stories and characters? Much easier, not only to imagine but to actually immerse ourselves in.

Researchers at Washington University found that far from passively consuming stories, we instead live the experiences of its characters alongside them. Whilst they read excerpts from a story called ‘One Boy’s Day,’ which chronicled activities of a youngster named Raymond, researchers found that neurons in the brains of the participants correlated with the precise activity Raymond performed. For example, areas related to the movement of the hand and grasping, lit up when Raymond picked up an object; similarly, neurons related to vision fired up when the character surveyed his surroundings.

So, how can we relate all of this to our jobs as marketing and PR professionals? By telling meaningful stories, of course. By sharing authentic emotions; experiences; personal snippets. By being real. After all, a good brand, logo and product is only the beginning.

Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, told The Guardian: “Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories. A story is a journey that moves the listener, and when the listener goes on that journey they feel different and the result is persuasion and sometimes action.”

To cut a long story (sorry) short: the power of storytelling is ever-important. Learn to craft a story that matters to your audience and they’ll remember it. And you.

Get on your way to creating the ultimate story:

  1. Audience: know yours deeply
  2. Authenticity: is essential, be real and people will relate
  3. Emotions: identify the emotional drivers of your audience and your story, use them
  4. Credibility: use your facts and figures, just don't ONLY use facts and figures