What Storytelling Does to Your Brain

The word ‘storytelling’ automatically conjures childhood memories: listening intently as grown-ups read us stories and sharing tall tales and jokes with other kids on the playground. ‘Story’, however, doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fiction’; it means ‘narrative’: weaving connected events together in a way that makes an impact with the listener or reader.

Author Ann Handley describes it best in her book Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content: “it’s not so much ‘storytelling’ as it is ‘telling true stories well’”. Choosing your words wisely to tell a relatable, impactful story is undeniably an art, but is there science involved in storytelling as well?

When we sit through a boring slideshow presentation filled with data points, only certain parts of our brains are activated. But when we listen to a story full of descriptive language, powerful metaphors, and personal details, it actually activates our entire brain. Because our minds think in narratives and cause-and-effect relationships constantly, when we hear a story, we associate the information being delivered with our own experiences, thus making it more memorable—and easier to recall later.

The field of marketing should be taking notes on the science of storytelling. Austin-based media and technology guru Paul O’Brien recently shared his thoughts on the topic at a Marketing for Startups event in October, opining that “the ultimate goal of marketing is to make the sales department obsolete”. He pointed to the strength of brands like Apple and Yeti where customers are the brand, lining up for the release of new products and proudly emblazon their cars and clothing with their logos. Because the stories behind these two brands are so strong, the products sell themselves: marketing has replaced sales.

When we tell our own stories, whether it’s the story behind our company, our upbringing, or our everyday lives, it is imperative to remember that our story (and thus our truth) is wholly unique. Telling our story in an authentic way is what makes us memorable.

Remember: it’s your story and people need to hear it!

(And the story behind the photo on this post is simple but sweet: when we got married earlier this year, my husband and I took photos at my favorite place in Austin, Big Top Candy Shop. The colors of the candy, the placement of the bouquet… it tells the story of our wedding in one snapshot. Chelsea Francis took our photos, and I cannot recommend her enough!)