Storytelling Fundamentals: Why Certain Stories Have Power Over Us

To see the power of a good story, all you have to do is look at some decisions we make in life. The college we attend, the president we vote for, the charities we support — we make those choices based on whose story appeals to us the most.

I’m not talking about an anecdote or an individual narrative, but the larger context. It’s all about presentation, the packaging of the story at the global level.

A typical propaganda piece that helped fuel the communist stories. Now displayed in a state museum.

A typical propaganda piece that helped fuel the communist stories. Now displayed in a state museum.

I happened to grow up in the Soviet Union, in the republic of Moldova. During the World War II era, Stalin and his comrades told the people  of Moldova a really good story that held for about 50 years. I remember being taught in school for years that the Russian Red Army liberated the people of Moldova. A really nice image was peddled of the locals greeting them with bread and salt, as tradition would have it.

The stories we were fed sang praises to the wonderful life we all had under the Communist rule. That narrative changed in the years leading to the breakup of the Soviet empire, but it certainly helped influence many generations.

Even now, more than two decades after Moldova became independent, the Communist influence seems to linger — many old timers reminisce about the good ol’ days of Communist rule, and happily vote for a Communist government.

Why do stories like these work?

In the words of Robert McKee:

“Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.” ~From “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of  Screenwriting

Stories tap into our psyche, tug at our heartstrings. But we are not just a bunch of emotional saps who love to be lost in some compelling narrative. We actually can’t help it — it’s all about brain chemistry. At least when it comes to certain stories.

Stories that follow a certain dramatic arc — which includes climax and denouement — elicit distress and sympathy. They produce the neurotoxins oxytocin and cortisol. Cortisol is a chemical that helps focus our attention. The more distressed we feel because of the story, the more cortisol we release. Oxytocin makes us feel more caring and empathetic, among other things.

In experiments funded by DARPA, psychologists were able to identify this brain chemistry and by monitoring heart response, blood and respiration, they predicted with 80 percent accuracy who would make a charitable donation. They used brain imaging to see how the brain was affected differently by stories that had climax and denounement vs. other stories and found that the brain doesn’t respond in the same way.

Admit it, you can't help but think how cute this puppy is. Photo courtesy Flickr user  Eunice.

Just another gratuitous puppy photo. Admit it, you can’t help but think how cute this puppy is. Photo courtesy Flickr user Eunice.

This explains why commercials such as Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” make our hearts melt (what else can explain 51 million views on YouTube?).

And advertisers know this and use it to work for them — images like puppies and babies, stories with dramatic arcs etc. help release more oxytocin and as a result, we’re feeling more connected and more emotional. We’re more likely to like the brand.

But it’s not just stories with a dramatic arc that activate our brains. We are wired to respond to stories — and we’ve been conditioned to them through centuries of evolution.

Beyond the purely chemical responses, stories have power over us because they help us relate and understand. They inspire us to act, encourage us to dream and remind us we’re human — and that the organizations, brands and companies we interact  with have humans behind them as well.

If you’re using storytelling to communicate and promote, the key is to use the power of story responsibly. If you’re using storytelling simply because everyone else does and because you know it can influence people, you’re not truly connecting with your audiences and fans.

Sooner or later, they’ll see through that and leave you to your shiny messages — there are so many other good stories, so little time.

Author: Rodika Tollefson

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