We’re in the business of reaching people, right?
And we talk a lot about how to do that — how to break through the firehose of information drowning everyone and help a product or a brand resonate with people. Keep that in mind, because:
I want to tell a story about the power of telling stories.
This comes from a really interesting article on Lifehacker, written by a guy named Leo Widrich.
Widrich co-founded a startup called Buffer, and his responsibility there — his whole job — is to preach the gospel of his app. To break through the noise and competing brands and get people to try the thing out.
And that probably isn’t a very easy task for him, because Buffer is very, very similar — almost identical — to Hootsuite and Tweetdeck and a million other Twitter and Facebook schedulers. The market is packed.
Widrich says things were going fine, but then one day, he stopped talking only about the benefits and features of his product and started telling user stories.
The difference was huge. And it happened almost overnight. Buffer became a success not because of its features, but because of the stories Widrich told about them.
Weird, right? Well, as it does with many mysteries, science has found an answer.
Stories help us learn how to behave.
The lessons we learn through storytelling are more powerful than the individual lessons themselves. They encode themselves in our brain differently, and more strongly. Humans are social creatures. We learn from each other. Before written language, anthropologists think we literally sat around telling stories about how the world works, how to survive in it and, perhaps most importantly, the rules and codes of these new societies.
And this happened really, really quickly.
We started hunting and killing wooly mammoths between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. We started painting pictures of wooly mammoths at almost exactly the same time.
Ancient humans didn’t, like, make an ordered list of how awesome wooly mammoths are, and how tasty they are.
- We made art.
- We told stories.
But when we describe the taste of cinnamon, the part of our brain that experiences taste lights up, too. When you hear a particularly rousing tale of eating cinnamon — perhaps as told by Katie Irvin or Carlos — the way the neurons in your brain fire are functionally identical to when you’re actually eating cinnamon.
Think about what that means: a really good story about cinnamon feels to your brain like actually eating cinnamon.
Telling a good, rousing, evocative story doesn’t just end with the physical senses. Using metaphor does crazy things, too.
We think of metaphors as being these literary or high-flown things that people use to be poetic, but they trigger the insula, the some of the same part of our brain that remembers how awful rotten food tastes and how much bee stings hurt. Think about what a powerful, often physical aversion you have to rotten food.
Weird thing: that’s the same thing that happens when we hear a really ripping metaphor. Which is why your skin sometimes crawls, or your hair stands up, or, if you’re a rapper’s hype man, you yell “awwwwww, s#!t!”
In one of the more interesting studies:
Scientists showed that saying, “The man had strong hands,” ignites that basic, language-decoding part of the brain.
Saying “the man had leathery hands,” though, triggers the part of the brain that processes touch. We understand the sentence by actually remembering the feel of leather.
When we listen to a story, researchers are starting to believe that our brain processes match up with the person telling the story.
Our minds literally synchronize! Think about what a powerful connection that is.
It’s like a vulcan mind meld with words.
So, as creatives, when we talk about benefits and features, people understand what we’re saying. When we tell stories, they feel what we’re saying.
I thought up an example to illustrate just how much more powerful telling a story is than just listing benefits or features:
Imagine a car commercial that says “Our car has a remote start button!” Cool? Not really.
Now imagine a car commercial that says, “Your life is going to be soooo much better if you buy our car with a remote start button!” That’s just ridiculous.
Now watch this:
So we’ve established that remote start is about as interesting as as a built-in gas gauge, and yet that ad literally won the Super Bowl of ads two years ago. It’s still powerful, funny and resonant.
So what makes the commercial work so well?
- The kid
- The dad
- Darth Vader
- What it reminds us our own experience of being kids and dads and wanting to be Darth Vader.
It works because of the story.
It barely mentions the car, yet the ad has 57 million views on YouTube alone and has probably sold more Passats than a decade of Fahrvergnügen commercials.
That’s the power of storytelling.
So, Uh, Banner Ads?
Okay, but how do we tell stories in a banner ad? Or in a Power Rangers mini game? Or on a landing page.
That’s a really good question I have no idea the answer to.
But that’s okay. Most of the time, the answers are less important than the questions.
And science has given us some really, really interesting questions to ask when we’re concepting a banner or a landing page or a game. I think we can even ask these questions later in the process, when we’re animating out a banner or when play-testing something.
Does this idea make make the sensory parts of people’s brain light up?
Does this execution immerse them so much that they duck when a meteor shoots by?
Can I use our story to connect them to their own story?
- IN SHORT: Can I make them taste the cinnamon?
If we can do that, we will have told people a story, and science says they’ll love us for it.