Your Content CAN Cut Through and Captivate People. Here’s How.

Tower of megaphonesStory is the framework we human beings have always used to organize information – to make sense of the world. It’s the way we synthesize, then compartmentalize the enormous sums of sensory data flooding into our brains every minute.

The more senses engaged, the more colorful and sticky the story.  For instance, if you’re at the office and you overhear on the weather forecast there are 30mph wind gusts, you might casually warn a colleague on their way out saying, “Careful, I heard it was windy out there.”  If you then walk over to the window and see the trees blowing sideways, your description of the situation takes on another level of detail as you become more emotionally connected to the weather.  You might even invite other colleagues to come witness the wind’s power, because good stories compel us to share.

If later, you go outside and feel the intensity of the wind whipping at your jacket and smell the moisture of the impending rain, this visceral experience gives a whole new layer of meaning to your story about the wind.  If you end up getting blown down and breaking your ankle, then share the story with friends the next night over dinner, they’re likely to connect your personal experience with that weather event for quite a while.  On hearing this analogy, several of you may have recalled your own, or a friend’s weather-related experience.  And, if you have such a memory, and were at your office and heard such a weather report, you might be much more emphatic about warning your colleagues, maybe even using your story to do so.  It’s the way our minds work.

There’s ample scientific evidence personal stories tap into our senses and emotions.  They build trust, empathy, generosity and compassion.  All the things we as sales and marketing professionals seek to elicit in our prospects.

Because this kind of “story wiring” exists in the brain, many marketers are convinced they instinctively know how to tell a great story.  But all too often we fail to make deep connections with our audiences because we don’t truly understand, or we misapply, the fundamentals of storytelling.

Most research suggests we have about 7 seconds to capture the average adult’s attention.

Great screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, famously portrayed by Brian Cox in the Spike Jonze film called “Adaptation,” teaches that once you know the rules of story, you can bend them to powerful effect.  Charlie Kaufman’s script for “Adaptation” is proof of that, but it must be intentional to be effective.

Let’s face it, it’s harder than ever to get attention for our products and services.  People are wise to all the ways marketers are trying to influence their behavior with gimmicky messaging and clever data-driven intercepts.  So, once we get their precious attention, we have to make it count.

Scientists refer to attention as a sort of spotlight.  Our brains can only focus on one narrow area at a time.  If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders.  Most research suggests we have about 7 seconds to capture the average adult’s attention – and that number is shrinking.

In his fascinating book, “Pitch Anything,” Oren Klaff explains how neuroscientists believe our brains subconsciously process every new encounter by cycling through a series of instinctual synaptic events.  The first involuntary reaction is often called the “fight or flight” instinct.  Its primary function is to determine if what we’re encountering warrants closer inspection; should we turn our awareness or attention to it? Is it relevant to my survival right now? Is it intriguing?

If we find something relevant and intriguing, we then engage our neocortex, the reasoning part of our brain, to investigate further.  If not, our brains are literally programmed to ignore it.

There’s a 22x greater recall of information if it’s contained in a story vs. a recitation of facts.

In an oft-quoted study published in 2013, Paul J. Zak posits that stories change behavior by changing brain chemistry.  His research further suggests stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered than simply stating a set of facts.  Other research suggests there’s a 22x greater recall of information if it’s contained in a well-told story versus a straight recitation of facts.

The same study also concluded that stories release the neurochemical oxytocin, responsible for empathy and narrative transportation – that’s how we become “lost in the story.”  To back up what we discussed earlier with science, the study’s findings also posit that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.

So, our stories have to be relevant, intriguing, personal and emotive just to get past our instinctual gatekeeper!

This is why sound storytelling principles are such a powerful tool in the hands of marketing or business development professionals.  According to Paul J. Zak’s study, evidence supports the view of many narrative theorists that there’s a universal story structure.  That structure is often referred to as the story arc that depicts the gradual increase and subsequent release of tension.  When employed properly, this structure helps deepen emotional connection and cognitive retention.

The story arc starts with establishing context, sometimes referred to as exposition.  Then comes the inciting incident or problem statement, followed by raising the stakes before the hero enters and the situation is resolved.  This is sometimes referred to as the “hero’s journey” story construct, and it’s the most popular archetype employed in film and television.  There are many other ways to tell a great story, but this one is a great starting point for learning the process.

If there’s no rising action, you’ll lose your audience, fast.

Viewers in SuspenseLet’s quickly run through each phase in the arc.  First, we have to intrigue our audience and help them understand the relevance and scope of our story.  This sets their level of expectation.  Too big and they could be disappointed.  Too small and they have no reason to care.  A perfect example of the misuse of this principle is the use of click-bait headlines that misrepresent the content of a story.  You’ve probably been caught by this tactic yourself, and you know how you felt about it.

After establishing context, our hero is presented with a challenge.  The challenge is the call to action that motivates change and propels our story forward.  What problem must they solve to avoid an unwelcome future?  All great storytellers have a knack for getting their audience to see themselves in the hero, or at least to relate to their quest.  A well-defined problem statement sets the stage for the heroic acts to come.

Now it’s time to raise the stakes for the hero.  All great stories need tension.  They thrive on unresolved conflict.  If there’s no rising action you’ll lose your audience, fast.  For sales and marketing pros, we have to answer the question, “What happens if the challenge they face is not resolved?  What will they miss?  What will it cost in revenue, reputation, opportunity, etc.”  This is where we build urgency and anticipation.

Low stakes = low value.  For instance, when the stakes are not high enough, you might experience disengagement, price resistance and extended sales cycles.  It takes courage and conviction to tell a bold tale – but the payoff is huge.

Just as the tension reaches a fever pitch, in strides the hero to save the day.  Our hero can take many forms, but she always quells the conflict and sets our story on the path toward a better future.

Marketing & sales pros need to learn to see their product or service as a means of helping their customers be the heroes.

The challenge for many marketing and sales professionals is how to frame their customers as the heroes.  They can easily get caught up in trying to make themselves or their product the hero.  This disconnect is the reason a lot of brand content falls on deaf ears.

Marketing & sales pros need to learn to see their product or service as a means of helping their customers be the heroes.  You aren’t Indiana Jones, you’re his whip.  That requires defining the challenge through your customers’ eyes.

With the conflict resolved, a new and better future now awaits us.  The flowers smell sweeter, food tastes better and the light shines brighter than it did at the outset of our story.  This is where we tie up the loose ends and remind our audience why it was worth the journey.

Marketing and sales teams, need to paint the picture of what this new and improved state of being looks and feels like.  It’s important to use both emotive and cognitive language and to remind prospects what the world was like before they accepted the challenge.

Quick review: we must all recognize story is the framework with which we make sense of the world.  It’s infused into our brain chemistry, but understanding this isn’t enough.  If we want to influence behavior, we must learn and apply the fundamentals of storytelling.  Imagine being able to harness the power of storytelling to produce more compelling videos, sales presentations, blog posts, white papers, even emails.  Telling great stories will increase your closing ratios and drive higher revenue per customer.

Applying story theory takes some practice, but it’s worth the effort.  Start by analyzing your company’s most visible stories.  Can you identify the key story elements?  Is the context clear?  Is there a compelling challenge or problem statement?  Are the stakes sufficiently high to build the value and urgency of a solution?  Is it clear who or what the hero of the story is?  Is the picture of a new and better future well painted?  If you apply this analysis to your best and worst performing content, you’ll come to see that story does matter.

Now get out there and tell us some great ones.

Curious as to how the story you’re putting front and center is perceived and received by audiences? Ask about a story survey.

Photos:, Stuart Miles, Marcolm

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