Once Upon a Time: The Importance of Storytelling in Content Creation

Posted on March 29, 2017 by Karen Z

storytelling and marketing

Have you ever thought about the history of storytelling and its impact on content marketing?

No? What’s that you say? You have a life? Well folks, your life is about to get a whole lot richer, ‘cause you’re about to get edified.

Back in the day (e.g., before the 15th century but after the era of cave paintings), if you wanted to pass along a story, the usual route would be to come up with a catchy song, poem, or dance and then perform it.

Sure, there were manuscripts, but they were handwritten and scarce, not too surprising given this was waaaaay before BENGAY® was making short work of carpal tunnel symptoms.

Fortunately, good old Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (or “Johnny G” as he’s referred to here in Jersey) changed all that when he introduced the printing press to Europe in the 15th century.

Had it been otherwise, I might be standing in front of you right now acting out a pantomime on how storytelling makes for great marketing content. Not a pretty picture, take my word for it.


The Importance of Storytelling

But while the method or means of storytelling may have changed dramatically, the importance of telling stories has not. And if you think storytelling is just for freelance fiction writers, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Plenty of businesses use storytelling to sell products and build their brand and their authority. Why? Because according to a Johns Hopkins University researcher who’s analyzed more than 100 SuperBowl ads, a good story is what sells.

In his study published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, JHU lecturer Keith Quesenberry says his research shows, “the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not.”

Specifically, the best commercials follow the five-act plot sequence depicted by Gustav Freytag’s classic pyramid.


How Storytelling Performs

Of course, knowing what content performs best isn’t the same as knowing why it performs best.

To figure that out, researchers have begun to look at the specific neurochemical reactions that take place in the brain during different types of stories and story arcs.

One of the leading researchers in the subject, neuroeconomist Paul Zak, found some storylines—specifically those that elicited feelings of empathy—were especially effective in motivating viewers to take action.


Deeper Connections via Chemicals

Why? Because these videos triggered the brains of the viewers to release two chemicals, cortisol and oxytocin, that helped them focus on the content and empathize with it—that is, connect with it on a deeper level.

Then Zak took it one step further and looked at how these chemicals affected the viewers’ behavior immediately after the videos. And this is where it gets really interesting for content marketers and freelance writers in general.

What Zak found was that people with higher levels of cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to give money to a related charity than were those with lower levels of these chemicals.

In fact, they also were more likely to give money to a complete stranger in the lab where the study was conducted.

So the videos that really connected—the ones that followed a more familiar storytelling pattern—were far more effective in motivating viewers to act. You can see a quick video about the study and its findings here.


Telling the Right Story

Zak’s research used charitable causes for obvious ethical reasons, but the implications are pretty clear:

Tell the right story—one that connects with the audience—and you’re more likely to motivate them to make a purchase, leave a review, or move further along in the sales funnel.

While there’s been plenty of anecdotal evidence that a good story can lead to an uptick in conversions, this research clearly shows the biochemical responses at play and provides a really compelling reason to use storytelling in your content writing.


Now you know why storytelling is important. To learn a little more about how to use it in your content writing efforts, here are a handful of resources that offer some specific tips for writers:

  • Read about the nuts and bolts on telling a good story in this piece from the Harvard Business Review.
  • HBR also offers this article about using storytelling as a strategic tool in business.
  • The Content Marketing Institute offers a list of six tips for incorporating storytelling into brand marketing.
  • This quick read from Forbes also offers some good insight.
  • And just for fun, this article in The Atlantic reveals what artificial intelligence models uncovered about the most popular story arcs.

And finally, a little advice to help you tap into storytelling learning opportunities in your own life: The next time your teen or spouse or significant other comes stumbling home well after curfew, don’t freak out.

Instead, take some time to thoughtfully listen to the fantastic tale they tell (which may or may not be accompanied by wild arm gesticulations and shifting from foot to foot).

Sure, you may be upset by their inconsiderate behavior and total lack of regard for your own feelings, but just think:

What they’re actually doing is carrying on the rich tradition of storytelling, complete with some original dance moves to underscore their message and emblazon it in your memory. Now, don’t you feel better?


Karen Z is a talented storyteller within the WriterAccess platform. See how she and our other freelance marketing writers can take your content to new heights and help connect with those who are yet to discover your brand. 

 


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