By Kat Lewis
As someone who has spent most of their life telling stories – firstly as a journalist, then as a copywriter, now as a book editor – I’ve always believed in the power they hold, but I recently had an experience that made me appreciate the power of stories on an entirely new level.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Setting the scene…
I’m a lifelong arachnophobe. When I was younger, I couldn’t even bring myself to touch a photo of a spider in a book, let alone one that was alive and scuttling. Despite my dad’s best efforts to prove to me that “spiders are more scared of me than I am of them,” I always remained pretty terrified, even though rationally I knew that they couldn’t hurt me.
As an adult I’ve had to get better at dealing with them and I can now remove small to medium-sized spiders from my flat using a cup and a stack of postcards (sometimes even the paddle I use when I’m stand-up paddleboarding, but that is another story!).
However, this year I had a truly remarkable experience and it all started with a book and a very compelling story. There are two other things you probably need to know at this stage: I love sci-fi novels and I adore octopuses. How on earth do those two things connect, I can hear you asking?
Well, there is a rather wonderful sci-fi author called Adrian Tchaikovsky who has written a book about a race of space-faring octopuses, Children of Ruin – sounds right up my street. However, there’s a catch. Children of Ruin is a sequel to Children of Time, and Children of Time is about a race of sentient spiders…
After much deliberation, I decided I’d give Children of Time a read, and it blew my mind. The world that Tchaikovsky has created is astounding and what was even more astounding was how much I loved the spiders and spent the whole book rooting for them. They were by far and away my favourite characters.
Facing my fear
What happened about a week after I’d finished Children of Time was even more unexpected. I woke up one morning to find a spider stranded in my bath. Usually when this happens, it takes me a good hour of building myself up to be able to catch said spider. My heart races as I catch it under the cup and I have a huge surge of adrenalin as I release it (usually dropping the cup outside, retreating to a safe distance and then only retrieving it once I’ve seen the spider disappear off).
This particular morning I felt weirdly calm. I got a cup, a couple of leaflets and, with no build up, no pounding heart, no sweaty palms or abject fear, I caught the spider and released it. I wasn’t quite ready to pick up a spider with my bare hands, but I no longer seemed to be terrified.
It’s been over six months since I read that book and I have tested my resolve at spider-catching multiple times since. Each encounter, I remain calm and feel little to no fear. It feels as though something has switched in my brain and that has happened because of a story.
Technically, the change in my brain has actually happened because of oxytocin, a neurochemical our brains produce when we engage with stories.
The magic of oxytocin
Oxytocin is a truly fascinating neurochemical. Research has found that oxytocin is produced in the human brain when we are trusted or shown kindness. It also increases empathy, thereby encouraging us to cooperate with others.
When we emotionally engage with a narrative and oxytocin is produced, we are more likely to choose to help others as a result of the story we’ve seen, read or heard. Experiments have shown that a strong story can make people more likely to donate to charity, for example.
In addition, character-driven stories that contain emotionally driven content also make the information contained in the story more memorable.
There are two other processes that happen in the brain when we hear or read a good story: neural coupling and mirroring. Neural coupling allows us to turn stories into our own ideas and experiences; while mirroring means that a reader or listener not only experiences similar brain activity to other people who are hearing or reading the same story, but also to the author or speaker.
Zak PJ. Why inspiring stories make us react: the neuroscience of narrative. Cerebrum. 2015 Feb 2;2015:2. PMID: 26034526; PMCID: PMC4445577.
Zak PJ., (2014) “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling”, Harvard Business Review, 28 October, available at: https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling
How to use storytelling to supercharge your content
When it’s done well, storytelling can significantly improve the performance of your content, whether you want to raise awareness, encourage people to take a particular action, or build trust between you and your audience.
Here are three simple ways to make sure your stories land and have the desired effect:
- Create tension in your stories: Tension within a story makes it more likely that people will give you their full attention. Because they are more attentive, your readers or listeners are also more likely to share the emotions of the characters in your narrative not only when they are reading or listening to the story, but after it has finished too. It’s this lingering effect that will persuade them to take action.
- Use characters and emotions: Emotionally- and character-driven stories have a much greater impact on our ability to retain information than facts do alone. Think about how you can turn some of the statistics about your business into an engaging story that you can share with potential customers, or even your team. Just imagine how motivated your employees will be if they emotionally engage with your overarching business mission, or how excited clients will be to work with you if they have emotionally bought into what you can offer them.
- Move from struggle to triumph: If you can take your audience on a journey through a struggle to an eventual triumph with your story, you will be more likely to motivate and persuade them, and they will also be more likely to remember not only the story itself, but also any key facts contained within it.
Are you using storytelling in your marketing and personal branding activities? Do you want to introduce more stories into your content but aren’t sure how to go about it? We love helping people share their stories and create emotional connections with their ideal clients.
If you’d like some help using storytelling effectively in your business, book a clarity call to find out more about how you can use stories in your content to boost your business and engage with your audience.