Storytelling in Copywriting

Storytelling is a lot of different things. At its core, storytelling is the use of language and narrative in order to communicate something to an audience. The content of the story itself can be fictional (made up) or factual (using real events, people, and data). Stories themselves can serve multiple purposes as well, such as to explain an idea, deliver a message, or simply to be entertaining. Because stories can be quite flexible, let us take a look at what storytelling is and isn’t so that we can narrow down the definition.

When it comes to our marketing, we want to ensure that there is useful or insightful information in our stories. This is because we ultimately want to use our stories to help drive our conversion rates. Another way of framing the idea of useful information is to say that our stories have a point. There is an idea or concept that they want to get across to the audience.

For example, if you run a bakery, then you may want your point to be how delicious your cookies are. You could do this by just writing, “we have the most delicious cookies in town.” But that isn’t very catchy, is it?

A more eye-catching way of doing the same thing would be to write a story about one of your customers, someone who goes out of their way to always visit your bakery when they are in the area, or who even makes special trips to get cookies from you despite living so far away. The point of the story is still that “we have the most delicious cookies in town,” but now there is an intriguing story that makes us want to know more. Why is that?

Did you notice the main difference between the simple slogan and the story? It is that we added a character into the mix. Stories revolve around characters. Notice I didn’t say people. There are many stories in which the characters are animals.

For example, an animal shelter is much more likely to feature animals as their characters than people. Characters offer readers someone to see themselves reflected in and someone to connect to emotionally. When you are telling stories as a brand, you need to make sure that your characters are your customers. Since people identify with characters, making a character into a customer helps to make the reader feel like a customer as well.

Another core point of storytelling is the concept of narrative structure. A story begins, progresses to the middle, and then closes with an ending. The best stories offer some form of arc throughout, one in which the character changes. In the bakery example, our customer begins without cookies, travels to get to the shop, and ends with cookies.

Tied to the customer getting the cookies is also an emotional element. The character started with a desire, worked to achieve that desire, and then was happy with the outcome. A story with a beginning, middle, and end follows what is called the three-act structure, and it is the most widely used story structure in existence. By following this structure and trying to incorporate an emotional experience into the structure, you create stories that can be followed by any and everyone.

Before we look at what a story is not, there are two important elements left to discuss that tie into storytelling as a brand rather than storytelling as a generalization. Your brand or business is made up of people and values. Storytelling is one of the ways that you can share the motivations and values of the brand and the people who run it.

If you were running an organization that helped people fight for equal rights, you wouldn’t share stories that showed somebody as being unequal in the end. You may share a story about how somebody was treated unequally, stood up for themselves, and was then treated equally because that shows the journey of achieving what you believe in. When brands share stories, they are also sharing their beliefs. They aren’t just writing out a mission statement with their goal but connecting those beliefs with an emotional experience that sticks with readers long after they have finished reading.

Storytelling also isn’t just sending out an advertisement for your merchandise.

Now that so many people have stopped reading newspapers and watching television commercials, brands need to be smarter with their advertising. Rather than just telling someone they should buy your stuff; you now need to provide them value through your marketing. Since the most effective marketing is now done on social platforms, it is important to understand that people are choosing to come to your brand to see what they say.

No one is forced to watch an advertisement as they had been in the past. Value is the key. There any many ways that we can provide people with value in our marketing, but we’re focusing on storytelling. Storytelling provides an emotional experience, which is in and of itself, something of value. When that emotional experience is coupled with useful information, the value doubles, and people will love it.

It is important to remember the concept of structure in your storytelling. This means that you can’t just write a couple of thousand words and put it out into the world and expect it to make a difference. You also don’t want to simply show people something cool that happened.

While cool things happening to your brand are great to share, sharing them in the form of a story will always lead to better results. It’s the difference between telling someone that you graduated from university with honors, versus telling someone about how you grew up in a low-income family that couldn’t even dream about sending you to college, which meant that you had to study extra hard to get to the top of your class so that you could secure a full-ride scholarship and make your parents prouder than they ever had been before. Adding context and narrative progression to those cool events turns a boring post into an inspiring story.

Why Do Marketers Tell Stories?

A few reasons have been mentioned above, but there are important ones that haven’t come up in our discussion yet. There is a misconception in the general public that marketing is simply about telling people “buy our products.” While this is the goal of marketing, those of us who do marketing know it is not even remotely close to how complex our approach to marketing is. There is a lot that goes into marketing, and it doesn’t do just to hand a possible customer some numbers or copy. There are three core ideas that storytelling handles best for marketers.

The first is the way that stories help marketers to take abstract or complex concepts and make them easy to understand. Anyone who has studied a difficult subject knows that wrapping your head around a new idea isn’t always easy. Stories are one way that we are able to grasp an idea more readily.

An example of this in action in the classroom would be when a teacher turns a math problem into a story so that you understand the real-world application of the problem you are struggling with.

Taking the abstract idea and turning it into a solid that we can grasp makes it easier to understand the way that everything connects with our experiences as human beings. An example of this in action is the way that Apple markets its gadgets. Instead of focusing on telling people how much processing power their computers have, they instead sell people on the things that they can do with their computers.

The technical talk is still available for anyone interested in looking it up, but by sharing stories about what users have done on their computers, Apple has been able to boil a complex concept down to the way that real people have made use of them.

Stories also bring people together in a big way. We’ll hear more about this in a moment because this goes back far into our evolutionary past. The stories we experience in our modern day living express emotions and experiences which we all share.

Being that we are all humans, we can understand what it is like to fall in love, or to be sad. We can understand the relief that comes with finally finding a product that provides us with what we were looking for and makes our lives easier. By connecting to stories, people feel more connected to each other. When your brand tells stories, this helps people to feel more connected to both your other customers and to the brand itself. Talk about a win-win situation!

Stories can also inspire and motivate people. When the animal shelter tells a story about the hardship that a particular dog has been through, this elicits an emotional response from the listener and makes them more likely to want to go out and adopt a dog themselves.

When you share a story about how a customer travels out of their way to get your cookies, you motivate others to take the same action to see if they feel the same level of joy when they eat your cookies. Inspiration is actually a great selling tactic, yet there doesn’t seem to be a lot of brands that have tapped into this particular strategy yet. Get ahead of the curve by considering how your stories can motivate.

Numbers and product descriptions don’t inspire or bring people together. Hearing that your company’s new vacuum has a suction power of 550 W doesn’t help people to grasp its concept. But telling a story about how someone couldn’t get the gunk out from between their floorboards until they tried your newest high-powered vacuum does. It makes it clear that this vacuum has enough power to get specific tasks done, it gives a character for the reader to connect with, and it inspires them to seek out a more effective product (your product) in their own lives.

Stories: A Neurological Overview

When we read a great story, a bunch of things happens inside our brains. One process which is triggered is mirroring. Say we’re listening to a story out loud, the parts in our brains that would be triggering are very similar to those that trigger in the person who tells the story. Everyone who is around to listen will be more or less on the same wavelength psychologically. This helps to connect the person experiencing the story with the person telling the story.

Meanwhile, this is also activating what is called neural coupling. If you’ve ever listened to someone telling you a story and it reminded you of something else that you heard, such as a statistic or even another story, then you have experienced neural coupling. Basically, experiencing a story allows us to then connect the ideas and actions in the story to the ideas and actions that we have in our minds.

So, everyone listening to the same story are all having the same regions of their brains activated, but the neural coupling is what personalizes our own response to the story. By slotting the story, we hear into our own thoughts and understanding of the world, and neural coupling allows us to better retain and appreciate the stories we hear. Listening to facts without a narrative structure activates two regions in the brain, yet the process of neural coupling allows for stories to activate many regions.

Finally, the body also releases chemicals depending on the content of the story. The most common chemical to be released is dopamine, which triggers a pleasurable feeling and one that makes a story easier to recall. A straight fact or ad copy doesn’t release dopamine and therefore is harder to recall at a later date.

While the effects of dopamine release may not be perceptible within consciousness, the brain itself is happier for having it released, and this creates a connection between the information in the story and a feeling of positivity. In many ways, this is the same reason your dog learns to sit when you use treats to train it. When the dog hears you say “sit” and it performs the corresponding action, it is rewarded with a treat. When our brains recall what we heard in a story, they are then rewarded with the treat of dopamine. The fact that recollection of information is improved through storytelling makes StorySelling a must in your campaigns.

But dopamine isn’t the only chemical that can be produced through hearing or reading a good story. We are able to control the emotional response in our audience through our stories. If we create something with twists and turns, the audience will be on the edge of their seats. This is because the change in direction creates a sense of wanting to know what happens after. We naturally want to know what happens after in stories anyway, but when you make it hard to predict what that upcoming moment is going to be, the body reacts by producing more adrenaline.

People’s hearts beat a little bit faster, their breath catches in their chest, and their attention narrows its focus onto the story. You use the processes of the brain to hook them onto what you have written. Likewise, this can be used to make people feel a depth of love that is lacking in typical day-to-day activities. You can do this by writing about love, but that isn’t the only way.

That story about the mistreated puppy that the animal shelter wrote. If it ends with that dog being adopted into a loving family, then it is a surefire bet that the reader’s mind is pumping out lots of oxytocin (the love hormone). These emotions, regardless of whether they are anticipation, love, or relief, all help readers to recollect the stories at a later date.

All of these are powerful neurological components that are triggered by storytelling. But they lead to a big question that we should consider. Just why exactly is it that storytelling is able to affect the human brain this much? For that, we need to turn our attention backward in time.

Stories: A Part of Our Biological Evolution

The reason that humanity is the dominant species on Earth is entirely due to our ability to tell stories and converse in a language. Before we had science, which can be thought of to represent data and statistics, we had story.

Tribes would gather around the fireplace and tell stories of the day. In doing this, they were able to communicate dangers to each other and identify patterns. For example, if one member of the tribe got sick by touching a certain plant, then the other members would learn about this in the stories that were told that night. This would allow the tribes to carry wisdom forward into future generations to ensure that they survived to pass along their genes to their children.

Very early in human history, before the written word, we had to learn how to share these stories. They were our first form of science in many ways. David C. Lindberg touches on this in his book, The Beginnings of Western Science.

Where we understand death as what happens when the human heart stops beating, early man would not accept such an answer. For early man, the reason for someone dying had to be as specific and personal as that person had been. Every death was a story. Likewise, every storm that passed wasn’t a weather phenomenon but rather an angry deity. The sun didn’t just rise and fall; it was pulled across the sky by a chariot. It was stories that shaped the world, not facts and statistics.

And so, it was stories that shaped the human brain as it developed throughout the ages. We know that our brain is still quite old in design. The modern era has opened up the world so that anyone can interact with anyone else, but our brains are only truly capable of maintaining about 150 social connections.

This number comes from the size of the tribes of early man as the brain was developing. It is also why elements of xenophobia and racism can seem so deeply rooted. To early man, the outsider was the enemy. Those inside the tribe were connected closely to one another, but it wasn’t because they shared the same blood. They were connected because they shared the same stories.

Sharing stories around the campfire was built into our evolutionary development specifically to deepen that sense of connecting with those around us. The mirroring effect was one that strengthened the tribe and kept it together because a tribe that was united was a strong tribe. When tribes found themselves falling into civil strife, both sides quite often would then perish.

By mirroring the neural activity of those involved in the storytelling, the sense of community grew. Neural coupling was added to this to allow those involved to connect the stories they heard to what they experienced, and this allowed the tribe as a whole to benefit and share the learning and wisdom beyond just the initial story itself.

In many ways, our brains aren’t fit for the digital age. They are most comfortable in the past. But as marketers, we can use the storytelling focus of the past to find massive success in the present. By creating stories that teach, inspire, and promote a sense of closeness between our brands and our readers (or our customers and our readers), we tap into the power of our evolutionary past and unlock the unlimited potential of StorySelling.

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