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How simple storytelling can help your marketing evolve

The human brain evolved to engage with and share stories, not information. To win more work through your marketing, you need to become a storyteller.

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Mike was on the cusp of a breakthrough which would kickstart his meteoric rise from underdog to alpha male. All it would take was two cans of kerosene.

The chimpanzee was under Jane Goodall’s observation at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in the 1960s. He was at the bottom of the pecking order, bullied by the rest of the troop.

In her book In the Shadow of Man, Goodall recalls the day that Mike’s social status changed for good. Having collected two kerosene cans from the nearby research camp, he approached the other males and their leader, Goliath. Slowly, Mike began banging the cans together. The din grew into a cacophony. Then, he charged. Terrified, the other chimps scattered. None of them gave Mike trouble after that.

Using tools isn’t unique to humans. It’s been observed across the animal kingdom, from crows to octopuses. Neither are complex social structures or rich emotional lives.

But before Jane Goodall, the social lives of chimps were a mystery. Her work didn’t just deliver insights into their world. It transformed them in the popular consciousness from animals into underdogs, heroes, even warring tribes. It was a revolution in primatology, but also storytelling. Without Goodall’s work, Mike and his kerosene cans would be long forgotten. So what is it that sets us apart from our closest cousins?

Humans have evolved an impulse to share stories.

In your marketing, stories are one of your most powerful tools. 

Humans love sharing stories

Your brain is built to seek out stories wherever you can find them, just like your brain is built to seek out faces. Like Mike and his kerosene cans, this drive has helped humanity rise to the top.

There’s a difference between the practical uses of storytelling and the reasons we’re driven to share stories. The physicist Richard Feynman once joked, “physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” The same applies to storytelling.

When sharing stories, your brain releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called “the love hormone.” It is associated with increased feelings of compassion and empathy. It’s the hormone that makes you feel connected to other people. It builds trust.

It’s theorised that one of the key reasons our brains evolved to release oxytocin when we share stories is because stories help us to survive. Strong social bonds and shared values help maintain the social cohesion that helped early humans flourish.

It’s oxytocin that drives you to action when you’ve heard a great story. It’s why adverts use stories that tug on your heartstrings, and why those stories continue to work, even though your rational brain knows you’re being sold something. The release of oxytocin is our chemical reward for sharing stories.

Stories are a survival mechanism. They helped our ancestors pass on valuable information and values to one another by making that information digestible, even exciting. Today, stories are the most powerful weapon in your marketing arsenal.

Stories win more work

Storytellers win more work. Whether it’s your next newsletter, LinkedIn post, article, presentation or pitch, you can’t afford to deliver dry information. 

Stop telling people information. Start telling them stories.

Steve Jobs once said that “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” The power of storytelling goes far deeper than just grabbing the attention of your audience. You’re playing into one of our most fundamental social instincts. 

Sharing stories builds trust. Trust builds networks. Networks will win you more work. 

Get started storytelling

You might not think of yourself as much of a storyteller. That’s okay. Like any skill, it takes practice. Keep an eye out for story hooks, metaphors, tidbits, anything that can be developed into something more. History, personal experience, hearsay – these are all great sources for stories. 

Here are some story hooks I have used recently.

  • Napoleon’s greatest defeat and his greatest victory took place just two months apart. This was the start of a story about management styles, and how they fit different situations. Napoleon’s micromanaging style helped him win the Battle of Austerlitz on land, but it was disastrous at sea during the Battle of Trafalgar, where ship captains needed to be trusted to make decisions. 
  • In 1983 Steve Jobs had just launched Apple’s second line of desktop computers. It was a disaster. This was about the failed launch of the Apple Lisa, which was outperformed just a year later by the Apple Macintosh because its marketing focused on a story (the fight to stop IBM dominating the industry) instead of its specs. 
  • Two fish are swimming in the sea. “Water’s warm today,” says one. The other looks confused. “What’s water?” This was used to make a point about how businesses don’t realise they can use content they already have for their social media – like the fish, you’re surrounded by something without realising. 
  • On the 26th of February, 2016, the senator from Oklahoma Jim Inhofe brought a snowball to the hall of the United States Senate. This story about a climate change-denying senator was used to explain the difference between personal experience and overarching trends when doing analytics. 

Those are just a few examples, and I’ll be the first to admit that my own interest in history seeps through quite a lot. That’s because I’m looking for stories I run across in my day-to-day life, whatever I’m doing. To supercharge your marketing, always keep an eye out for stories you can use later.

Collect your own stories and start telling them. Soon, you’ll be taking dry information and transforming it into the kind of compelling narratives that our brains are designed to remember, building your audience’s trust and winning more work.

More help

Want to get in touch about content marketing? Drop me an email at [email protected].

Charlie Stewart

Charlie Stewart

Content Strategist

Charlie brings his creative flair developing content and copywriting across all of our campaigns.

I’ve got plenty to say

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