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For those working in marketing and communication, storytelling is a daily bread and butter. Over several years, it has become a watchword on all retail fronts. What does it actually mean?

I bet that some of my acquaintances are hooked on the Game of Thrones or at least saw one episode of this popular TV series. You do not fit the description? Then perhaps you are a fan of a mobile operator Orange’s TV ad featuring two characters, the Heart and the Brain? Or you are Apple’s most loyal consumer and cannot wait to lay your hands on its newest product? Each of the above is an example of how storytelling works or contains some elements of it.

Why do we prefer stories to lectures heavily laden with numbers? It seems that the existing knowledge and information-based tools of persuasion have ceased to produce expected results.

It is down to so-called Attention Crash. The existing communication methods are becoming not just less effective, but often completely useless. Client, employee and contractor are overwhelmed with information. Here is a handful of facts to prove my point:

  1. Each day, we absorb approximately 100,500 words corresponding to 34 GB of information (an over 350-percent increase since 1980).
  2. If you were to spend a minute on scanning through each website, you would have to live to a ripe old age of 300,000 years.
  3. Each issue of the „New York Times” contains more information than what an average resident of the 17th century England could accumulate over their whole life.
  4. By the end of 2020, each inhabitant of the Planet Earth will produce on average 5 tetra-octets of digital information (photographs, video recordings, e-mails, text messages, MMS, etc.)
  5. The volume of content generated in 2010 alone matches the total amount of text written from the beginning of the world until 2003, according to news website Atlantico.

Storytelling is a powerful business tool and a skill that should be mastered by each company planning to build a strong and long-standing brand.

An honest story is both profitable and deeply human.

There is a profound story behind each of the world’s most successful market players. Often associated with the company’s owner(s), these stories are designed to create the sense of purpose and help firms derive a greater sense of meaning from what they do. Such household names as Apple, Tesla and Goole are more than  just companies. These are brands built by visionaries aspiring to change the world.

What matters most is that each of these stories is genuine. In the age of Internet when every single fact can be checked against vast online resources, there is hardly any room for fabricated tales. We visualize the story behind the brand and we start identifying it with the firm, with its image conjured up in our mind whenever we think of any of its products. How does it work? Left hemisphere of our brain is specialized in language, speech and calculation, while the right focuses on processing of visual and spatial information and face recognition. A human brain is less of a computer with each hardware unit assigned to a specific task, and more of a network of computers interconnected by means of enormous broadband cables. Connectivity between the brain’s active areas is even more important than activity of each single segment of it.  Studies conducted by neurologists (B. Miller, R. Ivry, M. Gazzaniga)found that imaging tools show a higher level of activity in the brain’s left hemisphere during language processing.

In his research, Gazzaniga points out that the brain’s left hemisphere, which is responsible for visualisation, often plays a vital role in our decision-making. More about it in an interview with Michael Gazzaniga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3k6P5JiNzrk

One of the best known cognitive neurobiologists in the world, Michael Gazzaniga has recently published a new book Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. In his book, he describes a situation when he jumped out of the way of what he thought was a rattlesnake but what turned out to be the sound of a child’s rattle.  He explains the mechanism of his response at the beginning of the book which, by the way, is an excellent read.

If we were to have asked Michael why he had jumped, he would have replied that he thought he had seen a snake. The reality, however, is that he jumped way before he was conscious of the snake. When he answered that question, he was, in a sense, confabulating—giving a fictitious account of a past event, believing it to be true.

He fabricated the story because our human brains are driven to infer causality. They are driven to make sense out of scattered facts. The facts that Michael’s conscious brain had to work with were that he saw a snake, and he jumped. It did not register that Michael jumped before he was consciously aware of it.

According to Gazzaniga, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to non-conscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of non-conscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations.

We need to realize something: reasons for which we do things often differ from the reasons for which we think (and say) that we do these things.

Putting all this scientific jargon into layman’s terms, and to demonstrate the link between storytelling and processes happening in our brains, I will share with you a story about a process of selling a product.

Let’s assume that you want to buy a car. You love speed, but want yourself and your family to be safe; at the same time, you are very serious about environmental protection. You visit a couple of car dealers. In one of the stores, you are served by a female sales rep. This makes you instantly sceptical; you do not think of women’s driving skills very highly, as reflected by a sheer number of jokes about female drivers your mates have heard from you.  Nevertheless, you take a test drive. The car has only recently appeared on the market, yet the sales rep proudly announces that she owns the same model. “A chick’s car,”, you think, but decide to take a spin all the same since you are already behind a steering wheel. The woman tells you a story how she once realized during a drive that she forgot to take some important documents with her. A mother of two kids, she was giving them a lift to school when this happened. Here goes her story, “ Imagine, I had to drive back home with the kids to pick up those papers. We live in the suburbs of Warsaw, but luckily there was no traffic jam as the majority of people drove in the opposite direction at that time of the day. So here I am, driving calmly, with kids in the car, when all of a sudden a wild boar runs onto the road. A real wild pig, imagine that! I am naturally shocked. Fortunately, the automatic braking system kicks in almost instinctively. I did not hit the animal… and there was not a single scratch on my car.  The car is designed to detect other vehicles and pedestrians, but the animal benefited from protection, too. We made it home safely and then set off on the return journey.  Here comes another surprise: I realized I had ran out of petrol. Thank God, the car is a hybrid. In truth, this is an electric car. Unless we opt for a kick down, we can push the pedal to the metal, reaching highway speed or near it just by using electricity. I actually managed to speed up to 140 kilometres per hour with only the electric engine on. Sadly, towards the end of the whole journey I got stuck in a traffic jam. That said, all ended well, kids arrived at school on time and I had all the necessary documents with me.”

Who do you think the gentleman eventually bought a car from?

Mirella Piwiszkis
Business Psychologist, Mentor, Founder of INSPIRE