The Power of a Story

What I’m about to say to you isn’t anything new. Quite the opposite; it’s a truth so universally acknowledged that it’s then dismissed as a given – and being more mindful of it might help shape more brilliant work. So here it is:

People live, breathe and gobble up stories

They engage with stories more than personalities, products or brands. Following our recent post on charitable giving, a powerful trigger to aiding goodwill is a strong narrative. Think of the £300,000 raised in a matter of days for pensioner Alan Barnes after people read of his story. The phenomenal job that the 2012 Paralympics did in changing perceptions of disability came, in part, through giving the athletes a platform to tell their own personal stories.

Never underestimate the power of a narrative. Smart brands don’t

It is becoming particularly evident as content marketing reaches new heights. YouTube seems to be the platform de rigeur for branded storytelling, but traditional media touchpoints are taking on the execution of a brand-led story, with AFP creeping onto the set more and more often.

OMD UK & DRUM’s very own Channel Us, created for McDonald’s, benefits from the way that narratives can entertain, educate and inspire young people – with a series of 72 hour challenges showcasing one person’s story as they try to create something brilliant in a confined space of time. Each challenge is typical of one of the seven basic plots in storytelling: The Quest.

So is that what makes stories so brilliant?

A quick straw poll of the office indicated that our favourite stories were those that made us look inwards, reflected upon us things that we too have felt or experienced…or featured Kevin Bacon. Don’t ask.

The former themes, however, are important when you consider the biological response we have to narratives and as always, it comes back to our brains. The way we digest stories is fascinating. In addition to Broca and Wernick’s areas of the brain being activated, to process the language, the parts which are activated by good storytelling are those which relate to the events of the story itself. If someone tells us about foods, our sensory cortex lights up. If about motion, our motor cortex is active.

In short, we feel what the characters are feeling. We smell what they are smelling

This was discovered in a 2006 study in Spain. And narratologists (yes, that’s a job title) call it ‘transportation’. It can play an important role in teaching us how to behave socially, as neuroscientists have found that reading in particular can activate the ‘default network’ – a neural network which supports our abilities to navigate social situations. We learn from what our heroes and heroines face and conquer. Maybe we now see a hidden agenda in Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign supporting child literacy in the UK.

Stories can make us better people, with brighter futures

Reading has long been the main medium for stories; language is important, as it paves the way for so many of these relatable emotions. Take a moment to consider how each of the words ‘lavender’, ‘triumphant’ and ‘despicable’ make you feel and you’ll see what I mean.

Sadly, we’re short-cutting this more and more these days. Cave paintings and hieroglyphics allowed early civilisations to tell stories in a visual format and, with emoji as the world’s fastest growing language, we are starting to see a renaissance in this form of communication amongst younger generations.

A word of caution! The best stories play out over time

A real story is nothing without strong characters. We remember these way beyond their time. Think back to BT’s Adam & Jane, the Milk Tray man (recently revived) and of course the OXO family headed up by the late Lynda Bellingham. Another common thread with these stories is the length of time over which we grew familiar with them – their development paralleled our own.

Marketers are obsessed with taking consumers on a different journey in every campaign, ignorant of the fact that average Joe will experience it in chopped up and scattered snippets across the course of his day. Chronologically confusing, and less than 0.0000001% of what he cares about. But a brand’s story, woven, crafted and distilled over years and years is more powerful, and less easily forgotten.


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