We all understand the impact of stories in our lives, and increasingly businesses are taking storytelling more seriously as a skill to develop and nurture (I’ve recently run a Storytelling training program for one such business in China and have another public course running in May). But what is it about story that connects so powerfully with us, and how does the psychology of story mirror the psychology of brand choice? Here are five ways that stories tap into universal human behaviours.
#1 Stories have emotion and emotion has meaning
Emotion is at the heart of how we give meaning to everything around us. As Daniel Gilbert put it, “feelings don’t just matter – they are what mattering means”. If you can’t experience emotion, then you can’t make brand choices. Emotions interact with our goals to tell us what is important – put another way, if there is no emotion, then it doesn’t matter (and it won’t get chosen).
The same is true in story – if we can’t feel what happens in a story, then we quickly lose interest and put the book down (or switch channels). The heart of a great story is a central “Star” (or protagonist in the language of Hollywood), and successful stories help us to see the world from their point-of-view (and more importantly to feel the way they do). As someone famously said, “story is an empathy machine”. Successful brands and businesses are no different. They feel and communicate the customer’s pain and offer a solution. They have empathy.
#2 Stories and brand choices have clear goals
Everything humans (and animals for that matter) do is goal directed, and at the heart of a great story there is not only a star but a goal (or “Treasure”) that they desire. Goals can be a mixture of personal and social (we are social animals after all). Goals are intrinsic to our lives, and define our “intelligence” according to Steven Pinker (“[intelligent life] is using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles”). To me this a definition of story too.
Brand stories are the perfect way to articulate the goals of your customers and the challenges they face (their “Treasure” and “Obstacles”). That is, stories help brand choice by articulating the problem the customer faces and how your brand can help them achieve what they desire. If you don’t have a goal, what do you do? Goals give meaning to life. [In TapestryWorks own brand work, we use a framework of 12 human goals covering the key emotions that all people want to feel, both personally and socially].
#3 Metaphors help make abstract ideas tangible
Stories, and language itself, is rich in metaphors and analogies, and metaphors are fundamental to human thought (they are arguably the basis of all thinking – implicit or explicit). This is because the brain knows the world through the senses and our knowledge of the world is completely grounded in the physical world. To understand more abstract and conceptual ideas, the brain first translates the idea into a physical correlate.
That’s why nearly all metaphors invoke a physical parallel, usually linked to one or more of the senses. The idea of a “sweet boy/girl” has far more impact on our emotions than the idea of a “nice boy/girl”. Why is sweet a positive adjective and bitter a negative one? Because that’s how we experience sweetness and bitterness. Our experience of the world is also directly connected to our emotions (see #1). Always be specific – make it real.
#4 Causal connections help us understand and predict
Our brain’s primary function is to make causal connections (“if this happens, then that follows”), to help us make predictions about the world around us. Stories follow this structure with a cause and effect trajectory from “Trigger” (start) to “Climax” (end). This is a basic working assumption of the brain. If it wasn’t true, then how would we be able to make any sense of our lives?
These causal connections mean that are brain is highly prejudiced by our past experiences. To a very large extent, we experience what we expect to experience and not reality. That doesn’t imply that we live in an alternative reality. Most of the brain’s predictions are close enough to reality to be useful, even if not accurate. Brand stories need to sell cause and effect – how does your brand change the customer’s world?
#5 Stories help us simulate situations we haven’t yet experienced
The brain uses stories to simulate how we might deal with difficult situations in the future. For example, fairy tales help children imagine and understand how they can cope with a world where they are on their own or facing difficult challenges. The brain doesn’t live an alternative reality, but it’s very good at imagining a virtual reality – a situation that hasn’t yet happened but might in the future.
What brand stories help customers to do is to imagine a situation that they may or may not have faced, and demonstrate how the brand can help them deal with that situation. The brain’s focus on prediction is ultimately directed at the most important goal of all. How do we survive and prosper in the world?
Stories help us all cope, survive, grow, thrive and prosper in the world. If your brand can tell a story about how it helps (some) people more successfully achieve their goals and make them feel better than they currently do, then you can drive success by connecting emotionally, articulating goals, getting metaphorical, demonstrating cause and effect and simulating a better future.
If you would like to learn more about storytelling, then sign up for Advanced Storytelling workshop on 17-18 May in Singapore. Please get in touch for more details.
Wired For Story by Lisa Cron