By Stephanie Diamond

Most great content marketers know that storytelling is their secret weapon. Now that the web helps everyone share stories, you need to create brand stories that others can tell for you. A great story can capture your customer’s attention as no other feature or benefits package can.

People are hard-wired to love stories, but why is this so? A brief look at neuroscience holds the answer. More has been learned about the brain in the last ten years than the one hundred years before that. People are able to analyze what happens to the chemicals in our brains as they respond to different stimuli.

The brain has three main “parts”: (1) the neocortex, where thinking, imagination, and problem-solving happen; (2) the limbic brain, where people retain memories, experience emotions, and form value judgments (consciously and unconsciously), among other things; and (3) the reptilian or “lizard” brain, which controls automatic physical functions and signals the “fight or flight” response in an attempt to keep you safe.

Consider this: The lizard brain responds when your customer perceives a threat. Even though the threat is not a stampeding animal herd, as it may have been in our ancestors’ day, customers may still perceive a kind of danger. In this case, it could be a high price or an assault on their time. They need to decide whether to stay or retreat. As a content marketer, your job is to mitigate that fear long enough to get your customer interested in your brand. So how do stories do that?

In his article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling” (see the following figure), neuroscientist Paul J. Zak talks about the effect of the brain chemical oxytocin. He calls it the “it’s safe to approach others” brain signal that engenders empathy and cooperation. In the lab, Zak found that character-driven stories produce this effect.

Harvard Business Review.

Another study by Zak is reported in Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog, shown in the following figure. The blog quotes Zak as saying that “results show why puppies and babies are in toilet paper commercials. This research suggests that advertisers use images that cause our brains to release oxytocin to build trust in a product or brand, and hence increase sales.”

PsyBlog website.

PsyBlog.

The lizard brain is quieted by stories that help build trust. Such stories actually cause a chemical reaction. Every content marketer knows that trust is the key to building a lasting customer relationship. The screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee says that for business communication, you need to “unite an idea with an emotion.” So when you see long, boring articles about a product, you know they are missing the mark.

So what are some keys to help you recognize good business stories? They include the following characteristics. They should:

  • Be simple and straightforward: Have you ever stopped reading a novel because the action was hopelessly confusing? You probably decided that you didn’t want to waste your time trying to follow the plot. People have even less patience for a business story — they need a simple plot. That doesn’t mean that the story can’t be complex, but if you confuse your prospect, you’ve lost him.

  • Evoke emotions: Attention is affected by our brain chemistry. If you don’t provide some suspense, mystery, or conflict, you have no story.

  • Use visuals: Web stories should have visuals to support them. An abundance of free, online sources of visual materials are available. Many social media studies show that content with visuals are understood and shared at a much higher rate than content without visuals. Imagery powerfully affects your limbic brain. Also, although some people are much more visually inclined than others, not just in words but by imagery as well, you need to show and tell.

  • Connect directly to the customer: Customers are seeking advice when they learn about your products. They want to know whether your products are a good fit for them. Telling stories about how great the company is doesn’t create the emotional connection. The connection comes when you tell customers how great they can be using your product.

    The point is really very simple. Customers are moved to spend money on your product when they believe that it will make them feel better, look better, or be better in the eyes of those around them. Think about that fact when you write your content.

  • Have a beginning, middle, and end: As with any good story, you need to have the three story components. Leave something out and you’ve got some details, but not a cohesive story.

  • Be authentic: Authenticity is critical to business storytelling. Telling a phony story is anathema to everything you know about engaging customers and building relationships. You can’t win. In addition, millennials are particularly captivated by stories about company values and giving. If you lie, you are lost.