Neuroscience and Storytelling: What Content Marketers Can Learn

The human brain is infinitely intriguing. With the help of neuroscience, we can now understand it much more. Research supports that the brain responds to storytelling. Neuroscience and storytelling are an interesting pair. Content marketers should take notice.

With an expanding range of studies, you can learn valuable lessons. They’ll make you a better storyteller. In turn, your content marketing will be more engaging and compelling to your audience.

A Look Inside the Research and What It Means

Let’s look at some published studies that tie neuroscience and storytelling.

Study One: Humans Are Character-Centric

A study from McMaster University concluded that brains relate best to character, regardless of the narrative format. The study used MRIs to scan subjects. They then provided short headlines that expressed some type of story. The content had a character and an action.

Participants then explained the stories using speech, gestures, or drawing. The research determined that no matter how they communicated the story, the exercise activated a “theory of the mind” network. This area is related to character attributes. The conclusion: People are character-centric.

What does this teach us about content storytelling?

Your content will resonate more if you have characters. The protagonist should be your audience or user. If they see themselves in the story, they connect with the message. Your content can include other characters as well, including a villain.

Study Two: Stories “Light Up” Our Brains

Neuroscientist Paul Zak, Ph.D., has been a pioneer in neuroscience and storytelling. He and his team found that stories literally make our brains “light up” with the release of oxytocin. This is a natural indicator that the story had an emotional impact.

His work provides physical proof that human brains are story-friendly. It doesn’t mean minds are eager to absorb all content. Stories produce the oxytocin, showing we care. It makes them memorable.

Zak also said that persuading others, which is what you’re doing with content marketing, is effective through storytelling.

Lessons learned:

  • Telling great stories creates an emotional moment and connection.
  • If people care, they remember.
  • Approach every content project with the desire to shape it into a meaningful narrative.

Study Three: Storytelling Feeds the Imagination

neuroscience and storytelling

A research project tested the impact of storytelling on children’s brains. The scientists used near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to determine the full effect on adolescent brains. They discerned that storytelling had longer sustained brain activation than picture books.

Picture books give you the visuals. Stories provoke the brain to imagine them visually. So, in activating imagination, stories could be advantageous in learning.

This doesn’t mean that stories shouldn’t be visual. We all know that video is engaging. What you can take from this is that powerful words stimulate the imagination. If you can capture this in your content, your readers will picture the story in their brains. It will stay with them. You’ll stay with them.

Listening to Stories Engages Our Brains

When you hear a story, the auditory cortex of your brain engages. Your left temporal cortex follows as it’s the area receptive to language. As you continue to listen, other parts of your brain react, too.

Once an emotional engagement occurs, stimulation in the frontal and parietal cortices occurs. Further, the story can elicit the sensory cortex if there are descriptions of food, for example.

What’s even better is that these engagements can last for days. The more emotionally compelling, the longer they’ll stay with you. Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, once suggested recall is 22 times stronger when in story format rather than just data.

You certainly want to leave your readers with a memory. They may not be ready to be a customer. But when they get to this point, your brand will be top of mind. Not because you told them how wonderful you are. Or explained in great detail all the features of your product. You’ll be memorable because you told a great story.

Stories Help Us Understand the World

Storytelling has been part of the human experience for thousands of years. We have plenty of proof of that from the Egyptian hieroglyphics and cave drawings that date back even further. It’s woven into culture. Families pass stories down. They have also been useful in helping us understand complex or abstract ideas.

Use this to your advantage in your content marketing. In fact, you should incorporate it into your content strategy. You can provide understanding with stories.

Let’s look at an example.

GE is a powerhouse brand with multiple companies and audiences. They do a great job with storytelling in various formats. In most storytelling examples, you’ll see experts discuss videos or ads. Those are impactful, but so are the right words.

One story I found on their website was a perfect example. It’s about their jet engine plant in Mississippi. It sets the scene with a look at the history of the space. It has characters, a problem, and a journey to find the solution. It’s not a commercial for GE. Rather, it’s an intimate look at their operations.

Why would this matter to their customers? They should be able to appreciate the narrative and the fact that it includes real people. Plus, it’s much more engaging than issuing a press release or simply rattling off data.

Techniques for Brand Storytelling

To get those brains lighting up and retaining information, consider these tactics.

  • Make it a real-world scenario: Show how the reader, your lead character, might use or apply a product in a practical situation. This ensures relevance.
  • Inspire emotion: We are emotional creatures. Play to this. The more emotions, the more oxytocin. Buyers make decisions on emotions more than logic.
  • Be authentic: The best stories from your brand represent your truth. Trying to go outside of this can backfire.

Become a Better Storyteller

You’ve got stories to tell. Your audience wants to read them. Get inspired by these examples of the hero’s journey in content marketing.