Why I'm obsessed by the science of storytelling

We are 22x more likely to remember a story, says Kevin Chesters, strategy partner at Harbour
Kevin Chesters
A father reads to his daughter
No story lives unless someone wants to listen.” - J.K. Rowling.

All businesses need a story and need to know how to tell it. Without a differentiated or interesting story, your business will blend into the sea of sameness that affects most categories, and that is fatal.

If you want to be irreplaceable you must always be different” - Coco Chanel

To start with, it’s a good idea to understand why stories are so vital to humans and to marketers, and then we can explore how to tell them in the best possible way. Stories have been with us for a while; from, in fact, the first time humans sat around a campfire. Stories are a vital part of our society, literally. The role they played, and continue to play, in the survival and flourishing of our species cannot be overestimated.

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution -- more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” - Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

The dictionary defines a story as: “An account of real or imaginary people, and events, told for entertainment”. From the Biblical parables to the Bayeux tapestry, from Romeo and Juliet to the John Lewis Christmas ads, we are surrounded by so many stories. But why is the skill of telling them so vital for all marketers?

For marketers, storytelling goes way beyond adverts or communications. It starts with understanding what is the story of your brand, business, or product – and how do you make that story both compelling and undeniable?

Stories are the reason that humans are the top of the food tree. We are hard-wired for storytelling. Stories play, and have played, such a vital role since the literal dawn of human time.

"You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.” - Margaret Atwood

Firstly, they help us to distil information. Next, they enable us to survive by making sure that this information we need(ed) to stay safe/warm/procreate was passed on. It is also suggested in John Yorke’s excellent book on the science of stories ‘Into the Woods’ that stories are also a vital part of humans achieving closure for any number of issues. They are great tools for explaining the inexplicable, simplifying the complicated or even exploring the reason for existing or being. So, for the species, it is vital we understand how to create and tell them.

But as marketers or business owners they are even more vital, especially if we want to stand out or get chosen. It has been posited by Jennifer Aaker in her amazing work at Stanford that you are 22 times more likely to remember something if it is presented to you in the format of a story vs. a basic fact.

Read that stat again. And then tell me that the ability to create and tell a story is not a vital skill for marketers.

Stories are also vital for engaging an audience. Gregory Burns at Emory University did some incredible experiments in neuroscience to show that our brains almost literally “transport” themselves into a compelling story. The brain remembers better because it genuinely believes it was a participant in the narrative – if that story is good enough. Daniel Kahneman has already proved that we think less than we think we think, and that most human actions are emotionally driven at an unconscious level. Further experiments by scientist, Pamela Routledge at Washington University have shown that the ‘grounded cognition’ that a good story gives the reader or viewer enables the brain to better ingest and assimilate information. Put simply, stories create the genuine emotion that enables us to engage and recall if their characters or story are good enough to make us believe.

Due to this evidence, I became so obsessed with the science of storytelling (I now lecture in it at four universities, and am about the start a professorship) that I sat down with several storytellers to understand the art. I really wanted to see if the rules of storytelling stayed consistent regardless of the ‘vessel’, so I interviewed a journalist, children’s author, fine art sculptress, film director, documentary maker and vicar. The spoiler here is that rules of great storytelling remain identical but the lessons that really stuck with me were from the sculptress and then the vicar. They are two lessons that every marketer, strategist or creative director should remember before anything else:

The vessel changes but the rules do not. Start with the emotion you want the audience to feel” - Emily Pennock, Sculptress
What is important is not that people remember exact words but how the whole experience has made them feel” - Reverend Robert Toibin

It is vital as a marketer or business owner that you know the story of your business. It is equally vital that you understand how to tell it. But it is critical that you understand how to reach in and grab someone by the heart; whether in B2C or B2B. If you want some advice about how to do that properly, give me a call.

Written by
Kevin Chesters
Written by
April 11, 2023