Why Story Sells: The Brain Science Behind a Well Told Tale

Dog-looking-from-around-a-cornerI have never been a fan of the game of football. In fact, for years I proudly attended an annual Non-Super Bowl party with friends who shared a mutual dislike of the game. But this year, with over 120 million people watching, the 2015 Super Bowl would be the most viewed television program in history so I agreed to gather with family to watch the game.

I decided to focus on the time-honored and much talked about commercials. Since each 30-second advertisement cost 4 million dollars and would be aired to the biggest T.V. audience ever, my plan was to carefully scrutinize and rate each ad for its ability to sell a product with a good story.

I was not even mildly impressed until the Budweiser lost puppy commercial aired. When it ended, I rose out of my chair, pumped my fist in the air and yelled, “Touchdown…they really nailed that one!” Not only was it a well-told tale but in under 60 seconds, Budweiser used pure brain science to successfully deliver their sales pitch. How so?

The human brain is hard-wired for story. We think, learn, and retain information in images that our brain translates into meaning. Ancient cultures communicated and taught with stories long before the introduction of logic in the 15th century. Through stories, our ancestors vicariously learned the value of mistakes, created social rules and belief systems, and made sense out of life’s chaos.  In his book, The Storytelling Animal, Johnathon Gottschall calls us “Homo Fictus” (fiction man) and states that “Humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives.” Our human brain has evolved for the purpose of influencing others and we do that best with stories.

When we experience a story we use our senses to engage with characters and events. That data is translated into electronic impulses or images that travel to the sensory cortex of our brain. The stimuli are broken down as short or long term memories according to other similarly wired patterns of experiences in our brains. We interpret story by reaching into the memory files of our own real-world experience and connect the story to what is already familiar. At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for emotions, beliefs, and desires is also activated.  Neuroscience has determined that the human brain is anything but reasonable which gives us an advantage when it comes to sales. It is not external experiences, but what we think and feel about them that determines our response.

Like our ancestors who listened to cautionary tales, stories allow us to mentally entertain new experiences without actually going through them ourselves.  Neuroscientists have discovered a particular kind of nerve cell in the brain called a mirror neuron. These neurons fire whether we are performing an action ourselves or watching others and mirror not only the action but the intent behind it. Through story, we can “rehearse” how we think and feel about an experience before we adopt its message but that’s not all. Mirror neurons are also responsible for allowing us to empathize or “walk a mile in another person’s shoes” A good story can deliver the experience and the message.

So why did Budweiser “score” during the 2015 Super Bowl? In his book, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Storytelling, Stephen Denning says, “The effective use of storytelling in organizations involves crafting and performing a well-made story with a hero or heroine, a plot, a turning point, and a resolution.” Budweiser used an ancient and familiar formula to appeal to our oldest and deepest beliefs, values, emotions and universal human truths. The protagonist is an innocent puppy wanting to belong; he becomes the victim of a crisis. The quintessential every man or “regular guy” is a cowboy who tries in earnest to find the puppy. While attempting to return home, the puppy encounters a villain (the big, bad wolf), gets rescued by the heroes (Budweiser Clydesdales, of course) and is escorted back home to be reunited with his “Best Buds” for a happy ending.

If you want to convince anyone of anything tell them a story that appeals to their emotions and capacity for empathy. If you deliver a well-crafted tale, you can transport a client from a perceived problem to a solution that your company or organization can provide.  Through personal stories, your clients will connect more solidly with you, your product, and your mission making you the one who scores in service and sales.