There are, appropriately enough, several versions of the story I’m about to tell you.
The one most often repeated one goes that, on an autumn day in 1940, an 18-year-old mechanic’s apprentice called Marcel Ravidat was out walking in the Dordogne region of South West France, an area laced with a series of spectacular limestone cliffs.
Some versions of the story give him a dog called Robot, who chased a rabbit into a fox’s den In others, there’s no dog. But whatever his reason, Ravidat went into the hole, and found that it went on and on, seemingly forever.
A few days later, the dog presumably safely retrieved, he returned with three friends and a homemade lantern. What they discovered was a room, about 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. It turned into a narrow passage and as they entered it, they raised their lamp higher and discovered walls filled with hundreds of magical drawings of animals. Further exploration would uncover galloping horses, stags with splendid antlers, aurochs, ibexes, bears, and a single image of a man confronting a bison.
They didn’t know it then, but what they had stumbled upon was one of the earliest surviving examples of human storytelling: a series of intricate cave paintings etched, scraped, engraved and charcoaled onto the walls of the cave, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago — a time when sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths still roamed the earth.
We are a storytelling species. Stories are in our DNA. From those rudimentary stories told by the cave painters, our brains have evolved to learn through story. This much isn’t new, or it shouldn’t be.
If you’ve ever given a speech, or run a business meeting or workshop, or even tried to persuade a reluctant toddler to stay in bed, you’ll probably instinctively understand a process that neurobiologists and marketers have only in recent years begun to be able to pin down: human stories can be a far more powerful means of persuasion than facts and data.
When we experience a story unfolding, what researchers have described as “an amazing neural ballet” takes place in the brain. Oxytocin is released, moving us to be more empathetic and generous. Telling details bring the story to life and help us to stay focused. In an emotionally charged story, the amygdala – a crucial part of our fight or flight response — releases dopamine into the system.
“Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this,” says molecular biologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules.
“As social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts,” says Paul Zak, author and director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
So an organisation’s transcendental purpose is much more powerful than its transactional power. To put it another way: a story about how many widgets it has sold is never going to be as compelling a story about how a single widget changed someone’s life.
Or, as author and communications coach Carmine Gallo says in his book, The Storyteller’s Secret, “One emotional and vivid customer story is far more persuasive than a data dump in 85 Powerpoint Slides.”
Forget bitcoin: it is ideas that are the most valuable currency of the information age. And the most effective way to share complex ideas is through story. What do Richard Branson, Sheryl Sandberg, Howard Schultz, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs have in common? They are, and were, all powerful story tellers.
So we know it works. You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t. What’s more difficult is understand how it works: how to put a strategy and a shape on your storytelling.
What makes a story resonate with audiences? Structurally, every story should have some conflict or problem, and a resolution. A question and an answer. A moment of adversity and a moment of realisation. This is why more than half of Hollywood movies, most of our mythology, and probably more than a few of those cave paintings, follow the same narrative arc, known as the ‘hero’s journey’. That’s the bread and butter.
But the secret sauce is a bit more complex.
In my 20 years as a journalist and storyteller for television, radio and online, I’ve identified the four things a story needs to make it stand out. The first three are: authenticity, the power to engage, and relevance.
There’s one more thing a story needs: it needs to be memorable. And that’s the toughest part of all to get right, in an era when, estimates suggest, we’re consuming up to eight hours of content every day.
As author Daniel Pink, whose talk on the science of motivation is one of the 10 most-watched TED Talks of all time, says, “Stories are easier to remember because stories are how we remember. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.”
To find out more about how to market your business through stories that are authentic, engaging, relevant and memorable, check out our 2 day Masterclass in Content Marketing.
About the Author
Jennifer O’Connell is a national media journalist and sought-after communications trainer who has worked with national and global brands to help them tell better stories. Trained in digital communications in one of Silicon Valley’s top tech firms, she has worked across every storytelling platform – print, online, social, digital, radio and television. She is an Irish Times columnist and features writer, and the presenter of Stressed a two-part documentary series on stress for RTÉ One. She’s also a frequent conference speaker and moderator.
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