The Power of Storytelling to Engage
Stories are the stuff of the world. Our perceptions of the world are literally framed and shaped by the stories in which concepts and histories are conveyed.
According to statistics, storytelling has been around for about 40,800 years. Humans have been communicating through stories for thousands of years. For whatever reason, there is, we are all attracted to a story on a very primal level. In our everyday lives, personal stories and gossip make up to 68% of our conversations. Research carried out by scientists at Emory University in February 2012 shows that switching the words in a narrative from ordinary words to visually charged words caused brain activity in the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch. Storytelling has been around for so long that we can now have the full feeling of experiences, which we may never have had. This explains why a person may burst into tears or become afraid after seeing a movie or reading a book. We are ever ready to connect with stories wherever they are served, and we are often deeply influenced by these stories especially emotionally. This is perhaps why our response to a story that was unexpectedly cut short, to be resumed at a later time, is akin to a drug addict who was forced to be without drugs for a while. Our brains react the same. We experience brain activity similar to withdrawal. Stories are simply how we make sense of the world.
As stories have evolved with time, so have they mutated into different forms. In fact, stories have been explored in different unique ways to the point of achieving a business goal or another. For instance, storytelling has been harnessed to create an emotional connection between the audience and a product, and it has worked beautifully for hundreds of years now because at the core, human beings by their very nature, are not able to not respond or engage with a good story especially when it is about something they care about or it is aspirational to them. Stories started as a way to convey history from one generation to another. So even though stories have found a different set of uses in contemporary times, they started as a way to preserve history. Nobody knows where and when the first story was told in history. It could have been in the frozen-over plains of the Scandinavian lands, or the warm huts of Africa, but one thing is clear. At a point in history, someone devised a clever narration, and other members of that society became greatly interested in it. Before human beings began to write, the only way to send information across long distances or time was storytelling. Stories carried across thousands of miles, as people traveled and mixed. Some of these stories were made up, and others are real events that took place, but one thing is paramount: human beings came to receive and accept stories as an intrinsic part of their culture, of their identity, and to this day, a well-told story will get the attention of people.
Today, storytelling is still as powerful.
Telling a story, be it through modern media, books, art, architecture or religion, still has a huge ability to galvanize large numbers of people together in either embracing a concept, being enlightened about a matter or collectively taking action.
The power of storytelling to engage really comes to the front when we consider how businesses have exploited this deep human predilection to double and triple their engagement across all contact points with these customers and ultimately, their sales. From Charmin to Cheetos, these brands have achieved remarkable success by doing things like incorporating a brand character, or mascot into their advertising. Statistics confirm that in the case of Charmin, a company that sells tissue paper, engagement on their Facebook advertising rose 585% when they introduced storytelling into their advertising. People are finally people, and they will do what people do: be interested in and fascinated by, a narrative. Those brands who tell their stories clearly and elegantly, passing the personal message across of how they started, what goes on on the backend, and what their purpose is, are the ones that are best able to engage consumers whose attention span on the internet these days, is declining fast.
Here are some examples of powerful engagement of people on account of proper storytelling:
1. Branding and Advertising:
Perhaps nowhere else is the culture of storytelling more exploited in today’s world more than it is in the branding industry. We are at a point in history where simply having a fantastic product, at a good price and with a suitable logo, are all not enough to sell it or even record proper traction. Marketers had to find another way to get their message across to people, another way to get people to pay attention to their products in spite of the noise of ads literally everywhere you turn. They had to find access to the emotions of their prospective customers, and they found this in storytelling. Decades ago, brands were perceived as cold, unemotional behemoths, large warehouses containing products that they simply sent out to the customers who needed them. There was no personal touch or semblance of a relationship between their customers and the brand itself. But human beings are by nature relational. Marketers realised that a brand did far better, and especially in the age of computers and internet, when they were willing, with every touch point of their brand or product, to offer the opportunity for a relationship with their customers. They did this (and still do to this day) through storytelling. Brands uncovered their human side, their stories, and shared these stories aggressively. Stories have been used in this industry to attract bigger sales numbers and get vast numbers of buyers subconsciously connected to the brand strongly.
There is a whole billion dollar industry that still exists to this day, devoted to telling stories to children, believe it or not. Young children perhaps crave interesting stories more than any other group on earth, and they want their stories served in a specific way. Children’s books, cartoons, games and more often present an intriguing story and introduce conflict in the middle, and then let their audience down slowly at the end. Also, storytelling using these mediums also has a prominent purpose. Using storytelling, we can communicate to children the values that our society upholds and reveres. Because in truth, only a story can capture the attention of a child for long enough for them to learn something from it, actively or subconsciously. Storytelling is how we begin to prepare kids for fitting in with society as they grow. As a result of storytelling, the kids begin to ask interesting questions of their parents. This is the reason stories about fictional figures like Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, Peter Pan have been with us for years, and will not go away. These stories provide for the children a framework from which to understand the world, and concepts like evil, goodwill, care, love, perseverance, and companionship.
As adults, personal stories and gossip take up 68% of our conversation. This statistic alone tells the story (pun intended) of our attachment to stories. One way to see this work is in published works. More people are willing to sit down and spend an evening indoors reading fiction than are willing to spend that same evening reading journals of science. You don’t need an experiment to prove this to be true. A book with a fluid, captivating story is always going to be easier to read than a document that just presents the outcomes of an experiment for instance, in a matter-of-fact manner. We need to feel a connection to the material, to the flow of events before we can be engaged with it easily, even willingly. This is the single most important reason why reality shows on television have flourished with a spectacular fervency.
Humans have a need to hear stories, especially relatable stories. A reality show fits the bill perfectly. It brings us into the life of a family or individual that should otherwise be private and we watch his triumphs, shortfalls, and his reactions to these experiences. There is something about it that is primally human, something that demands us to tune into the story being told because it is the story of a human being. It’s there in everyone.
The same thing happens with sports. When a 100,000 capacity football stadium is packed to the brim, it is an expression of our need for stories, more specifically, story endings. Imagine that you have followed a particular team from the humble beginnings of qualification in a tournament, until, against seemingly bigger and more professional teams, they have made it to the last game of the tournament. Whether you’re able to physically go to watch the game or not, you definitely want to know how it ended, how the story ended.
The role of storytelling in religion cannot be overemphasised. In fact, this is one of the earliest adaptations of storytelling to galvanise people toward a common cause. Growing up in a religious family as a child, conversations around the house would be sprinkled with bits and pieces of stories from that religion. If you did something bad, they would compare you to a character within a story who decided to err, and then how that character ended up. It provides a platform to build character within the children according to the dictates of that religion. These stories are designed in a way that they insist on teaching their listeners of the consequences of good and the consequences of evil. Whatever the case, storytelling emphasises the need to be engaged in the doctrine and practices of religion in order to achieve eternal bliss. And billions of people can relate to this and naturally stay engaged.
Written stories are perhaps the most obvious art form in which engagement is visible. In the world of fictional serial killings, and otherworldly adventures, the currency of trade is engagement, and the masters know how to milk it. Novelists who sell millions of books have perfected the art of storytelling. A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and one way to keep a reader engaged is to orchestrate a sufficiently exciting climax, and then let the audience off just not long after that. Writers of all kinds agree that one thing that makes a story compelling is conflict. The conflict inside a character or between a character and an event is generally the framework for an addictive story. Writers appeal to certain emotions when constructing their work, like fear, love, death or crime. And it is human nature to follow the story to the end and get closure on the characters. This accounts for the huge sales on the best of these books.
The world would be a dull, grey place indeed without the beauty of storytelling, and I don’t know what kind of lives humans would live. The power of a story to engage a person, have him wanting more, sharing it to everyone he can find, is at its root a human response. We have seen the many various ways in which storytelling transforms itself into a powerful tool capable of affecting personal decisions of millions of people, making them to consistently choose one bottle of peanut butter over another when both bottles have essentially the same stuff in them. A story has enormous potential among human beings because we connect to stories naturally, as part of being human. A story, therefore, that is well crafted, can be used to engage people through different mediums in the craziest ways possible. It proves itself each and every time, from the movies of the 80s to the social media marketing campaigns of today. A good story will always have us tuning in, and wanting to see it to the end.