How Stories Influence People and Inspire Action

Robert Rosales

Robert Rosales

Principal Consultant

''Everything starts with a story''

Social media has made it easier than ever to tell the stories of our lives. It is just the latest evolution of the history of storytelling that goes back thousands of years. Cave dwellers painted murals depicting hunting of mammoths, bulls, and lions over 30,000 years ago. The ancient Greeks left us vivid myths of sorrow, courage, love, and war. 

When BBC Culture, in 2018, asked writers around the globe to pick stories that most shaped the world, Homer’s Odyssey (written in the 8th century BC) topped the list, One Thousand and One Nights (8th to 18th centuries), Hamlet (1603), Don Quixote (1605), and Frankenstein (1818) made the top ten.

This begs the question of why some stories have endured across generations and continents. One reason is that stories is how our species has shared wisdom and built empathy through the millennia. In addition to the evolutionary reason, the field of neuroscience found that stories affect the brain and change the way we think, feel, and act.

Stories change the brain

Let’s look at the brain science behind stories. We have two memory systems. One that we are aware of in the sense that we can summon up its contents; the other provides its input through triggers in an automatic way. We call the first explicit memory and the second implicit memory.

The first system is sequential, and is designed for animals to navigate, and find their way back to their homes from a foraging trip. It is designed to connect with the senses e.g., visualization, and add a sense of sequence or timeline. This enables us to recognize milestones on a journey, whether they are smells, pictures, or sounds.

This system is built for journeys. Humans are able to use abstraction on most systems in the brain. They can effortlessly replace real sensory input with imaginary input, and this is a function of implicit memory.  A narrative –or story- has both visualization (implicit) and sequence (explicit). Therefore, it fits with these memory systems perfectly. A story, whether fact or fiction, is a journey created in our imagination.

Archetypes that light up the brain

A story has patterns just like journeys. It is sometimes said that there are only seven story archetypes:

  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Rebirth.

The particular significance of these stories is in the juxtaposition of sensory, emotional and social experience into a pattern. These are all individual elements which are in the implicit memory system. The implicit system is relaxing for us. It’s effortless for us  to imagine a picture or respond to social stimulus. However, it’s effortful to keep sequence in the explicit system. A model like that of a story which oscillates between the two allows us the best of both worlds. The archetype allows us comfort in the predictability of events.

The archetype also provides us with an unexpected bonus, which is the “unexpected”. A sudden twist in an archetypal story line fires a trigger (a dopamine hit) and allows us to experience pleasure. The perfect plot keeps us in suspense, perfectly balancing imagination with sequence and both expected  and unexpected events.

Great stories change minds

Research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology has shown that stories are typically more effective at changing people’s minds than rational arguments. Let’s look at an example that demonstrates how stories are memorable and impactful in ways that statistics aren’t.

In a famous study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, students were placed in two groups. One group was showed a marketing packet with statistics about childhood malnutrition for children in Africa. The second group was shown the same statistics but was also provided information in the form of a story about an 8-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia.

The subjects were given $5 as compensation for their participation in the study. Before leaving, they were asked if they wanted to donate money to the charitable organization “SAVE THE CHILDREN”.

The individuals in the STORY condition gave nearly twice as much money as those in the statistics condition ($2.38 vs. $1.43).

The Takeaway

Our brain attaches an emotion to the things it wants to remember because they help with survival. Therefore, an emotional and well-constructed message that skilfully uses stories is a MUST HAVE when you want to influence others into action. And that’s how emotion, not logic, drives decisions.

What stories are you telling your customers?  Who is the hero of your stories? Can you tell stories that capture attention and prompt action?

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