There are so many people talking about the importance of storytelling in your content that it’s beginning to feel like another one of those marketing gimmicks. But as is often the case with these things, people have jumped on the bandwagon and started shouting about them without really understanding WHY they are so important.

Because the truth is, they are incredibly powerful. They’re at the heart of what makes us human. Stories really can help you grow your business, sell, develop your brand, increase customer loyalty and much more.

Equally though, they can damage your business if used in the wrong way. That’s why it’s important to understand WHY stories are so effective and what really happens when we read them. That way, we can make sure we only use them for good.

But before I can reveal that, we have to take a step back and look into our evolution.

Why our brains are wired for stories 

Most of you will be familiar with evolutionary theory, Darwinism or at least the term “survival of the fittest”. Essentially, we evolve to improve our chances of survival.

When people talk about evolutionary theory, they often focus on the role competition plays within this. But, us humans are a little more complex than that – no surprise there, then. 

Most animals, including humans, can achieve more and survive better when they cooperate rather than “go it alone”. For example, a pack will work together to eat safely; while some of the pack eat, others will keep an eye out, ready to raise the alarm should a predator appear.

It’s the reason why we have phrases such as “two heads are better than one” and will get help from someone else when we have a problem. We can achieve more when we use the power of the group or tribe.

As time has gone on, this has developed further into what Brian Boyd calls “reciprocal altruism”. I like to term it, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine later”. Think of it as a payoff – you do something for someone and they’ll owe you something later. It’s a different level of cooperation requiring more complex skills.

Evolutionary theorists believe that the need for reciprocal altruism within human beings is the reason that we have developed a range of social emotions such as guilt, empathy, trust, and gratitude. Without these emotions, the drive to compete and out-do one another would override our desire to cooperate.

For example, in order to give something to someone else, we need to trust them to return that favour. For them to feel compelled to return that favour, they would need to feel guilty at the thought of not doing so. These emotions also help us decide who we should trust and I can’t overstate the importance of trust in business.

Again, this is not something that is exclusive to humans.

But it’s when we start delving into the uniqueness of human beings that we see storytelling playing its role.

In humans, those social emotions can be triggered simply by stories. 

What happens to our brains during stories 

Ever heard a story about an athlete who visualised their next race over and over again, imagining it in great detail, re-creating every single tiny movement in their mind? Of sports teams who’ve hired a mindset expert who dramatically changes the results?

In the 1990s scientists discovered something called mirror neurons. These are neurons in our brains that fire up when we see somebody else doing something or expressing an emotion. It even happens when we are imagining, seeing the picture in our mind. 

But it’s more than just a few neurons lighting up. They light up in the same way as if we were doing the thing or feeling that emotion ourselves. In other words, the neurons in our brain “mirror” or imitate what they would do if we were taking part in what we were observing and that includes releasing hormones such as cortisol (stress) and oxytocin (happy). 

Ever noticed how you feel happy and start laughing when someone else has the giggles? It’s because of our mirror neurons – our brains are doing almost the same thing as they would if we were the one with the giggles.

In other words, we experience a little of how other people are feeling and it allows us to empathise.

This is what happens in our brains when we read stories. Depending on the amount of rapport that we have with the character, we either place ourselves as an observer of the scene or straight into the shoes of the character. 

Either way, those mirror neurons light up in our brain and hormones are released. Empathy is created.

Think about a film you’ve watched where the protagonist is in danger. They’ve been chased by the villain and are now hiding, trying not to breathe or make a noise. You can feel your own heart beating faster and notice that you’re holding your breath. 

Your neurons have lit up as if you’re the one in the scene. Cortisol is being released into your body and you’re feeling stress – it’s almost as if you were there. The more you identify with the character and the closer it is to your own personal experiences, the more you will experience it.

When we hear a story our mirror neurons light up and ensure we feel the emotions in the same way as if we were living the events ourselves.

This means that stories give our brains the opportunity to learn, practice and improve social skills such as cooperation and reciprocal altruism. We can play out different scenarios and “mirror” the experience. This allows us to get better at survival. 

We don’t have to actually experience something to learn from it. For example, we can learn from a character in a story who ignores the warning signs and trusts someone who later lets them down. In the future, when we are faced with something similar, our brains can recall this experience, what we learned and play out the different scenarios or stories. This can allow us to spot the warning signs and avoid being let down.

From stories we learn how to: 

  • make decisions
  • behave around a certain type of character
  • predict the likely outcomes of actions
  • play out scenarios in our heads
  • decide what actions we should or should not take
  • understand different perspectives

They expand our social understanding giving us a way to make sense of the world around us and the knowledge and emotions needed to make decisions that will best improve our survival and level of achievement.

Why tell stories?

However, we’re still left with a slight problem. We’ve seen the advantage we get from stories but not why we would bother telling them. 

If humans are going to do something, there has to be a net gain. So, why do we bother telling stories? What do we gain?

One way in which we gain is via the reciprocal altruism trade. We tell a story which helps someone to learn and understand the world around them and they then owe us a favour.

But stories offer us more than that. They also further our survival by helping us to gain attention and status within a group – something that’s also rather useful and important in the world of business.

But for you to achieve that, you have to be telling the right stories.

Telling the right stories

To gain status from storytelling, your stories must consistently provide a net benefit to the recipient – in other words it offers them more value than what it costs them to listen or read your story. The right stories are ones that:

  1. Contain information that is not already known
  2. Are unexpected
  3. Accurate 
  4. Are succinct and well expressed.

If you can tell stories that meet these criteria then others are going to see you as someone important. Your status will then rise.

Let’s think about this in terms of business. Someone who is a mindset coach, for example, could use storytelling to pass on important information about transformations such as:

  • How much is possible with the right support
  • New ways in which those transformations can be achieved
  • The important role mindset plays in success.

An accountant could tell a story about how he discovered a way to save money for a business that was sinking under their costs.

A photographer can use storytelling to reveal how unhappy someone once was in front of the camera, how they hated photos of themselves. Then, one day, they got them to let go of their inhibitions so they could be playful. Suddenly, what they had originally perceived as their faults were filled with beauty and in that moment, the person began to love themselves again.

When you’re giving your ideal clients valuable, accurate and previously unknown information that can help them progress, you will go up in their estimation. Over time, as more people see your stories, you will experience a rise in status.

But there are a few other things you need to pay attention to ensure your stories prove beneficial.

Creating a beneficial story

In order to judge stories, and the benefit they’re going to offer us, Brian Boyd believes we check a story against the following criteria: 

  1. Is it interesting? 
  2. Is it potentially relevant to us?
  3. Does it need to take so long?
  4. Is it reliable?
  5. Is it honest?
  6. Can we apply it to our situation? Will it give us a model for behaviour?

The online world adds to the need for a story to be interesting. In fact, it has to captivate your audience within the first few words. You only have a few seconds to hook your reader before they’ll decide whether to continue reading or scroll on by.

The easiest way to create interest from the start is to create an open loop or what they call “enigma codes” in Media Studies. This is when your reader is left with an unanswered question. For example, George Orwell opens 1984 with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. Our interest is immediately piqued as we wonder what’s happened or where we are that a clock is striking thirteen. Toni Morrison’s Paradise, begins “They shot the white girl first”. Not everyone will admit the unanswered questions that one brings up. 

It’s a technique constantly used in film trailers – what are they running away from / will they survive that explosion / manage to escape / end up in a relationship? And it’s one you can use in your storytelling content. As human beings, we don’t like unanswered questions and therefore we’re much more likely to read on to discover the answer.

It’s also worth mentioning relevance. When you’re running a business, it can be tempting to try and reach as many people as possible. You’ll have already heard that this doesn’t work. But perhaps the reason why has not been so clear. Your content – storytelling or otherwise – needs to be relevant. The higher it scores on this, the more helpful it will be, the more status and respect you’ll gain and in turn, the more customers you will have.

There are some universal stories but they are few and far between and it will always be small details that will make your story feel more relevant. This comes from targeting a specific audience. 

There’s no point telling stories about positive or growth mindset to those who think it’s baloney or are unwilling to accept they need to make changes. Telling stories about overcoming obstacles to success will fall on deaf ears if the audience isn’t looking to achieve more than they are already.

You need to be telling relevant stories to the relevant people, not standing on your soapbox shouting them to everyone.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to reliability and honesty. A quick warning – if you choose to do the opposite or even try and use stories to manipulate others, you risk losing any status you had and being shut out from the social group. 

However, a simple way to incorporate a sense of honesty and reliability within your stories is to include specific details. That doesn’t mean you have to describe everything in minute detail, it’s more a case of sprinkling some examples here and there. For example, when revealing how Thumbelina, who came and told me bedtime stories, turned out to just be my granddad’s thumb, I talk about the blue cloth wrapped around his thumb, the elastic band that held it in place and the crudely drawn face in Biro that somehow my child self ignored and turned into a magical creature.

Final Note

You see, stories really are magical. But just like anything that is powerful, they need to be handled with care. Throwing them around just won’t do. Instead, we need to be mindful of the benefits of telling and reading stories, the impact they can have and begin using them with integrity to serve us and our customers.