Storytelling has become one of the hottest topics in marketing in recent months, and experts all around the world are encouraging brands to put stories at the heart of their marketing.

But what has prompted this increased interest in storytelling, and what can marketers do to tell better stories of their own?

The Rationale for Stories

Every human being - regardless of their age, race, culture, or personality - is innately drawn to stories.

Stories are a critical part of what makes us human. 

They enable us learn about the world, form our identities, and understand where we fit in the universe.

Our brains process, structure, and remember information using the same kinds of 'narrative structures' that we employ to share and experience stories. As a result, stories are one of the most fundamental ways in which we can share the collective wealth of human knowledge and experience, over time and between different languages and cultures. 

For the same reasons, stories lie at the heart of every civilisation, every religion, and every ideology.

What's more, the stories we tell about who we are - whether to others or to ourselves -  play a critical role in shaping, evolving, and reinforcing our personal identities and sense of self.

Given all the above, we might go so far as to say that all our lives are stories.

But what exactly are 'stories'?

The Essence of Great Stories

A story is:

a narrative that enables people to capture, organise, remember, and share information, events, ideas, and dreams, together with the emotions that make those things meaningful and memorable to us and to other people.

The best stories harness the '4Es':

Experience: great stories go beyond words and pictures, activating our sensory cortex to trigger more visceral reactions in our minds and bodies.

Emotion: stories take us on a journey through different moods and emotional states.

Engagement: well-told stories draw us in, captivating our attention and imagination, and activating more parts of our brains than mere facts or information alone.

Empathy: stories enable us to relate to other people's experiences, ideas, emotions and broader lives.

The reason why stories involve us so deeply is that they stimulate the release of various chemicals in our bodies, all of which trigger powerful responses:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which works at the heart of our brain's 'reward centre', regulating our perception of potential pleasure, and our physical responses to attaining those rewards.

Cortisol is a hormone that is often associated with stress, but it also helps to focus our attention, enabling us to concentrate on a story's narrative, and commit more of it to memory than we'd be able to do with cold, hard facts alone. This is why we feel 'engrossed' in good stories, and why we almost get 'lost' in the very best stories, becoming almost oblivious to our surroundings (and even ignoring our beloved mobile phones).

Oxytocin is perhaps the most important 'story hormone' though, as it's responsible for feelings of warmth, empathy, trust and affection. 

Thanks to the release of these chemicals, stories actually make us 'feel' things: happiness, sadness, fear, relief, anger, despair, hope, love, empathy, inspiration… 

But the effects of a good story aren't just limited to the reactions we experience whilst engaging with the story directly; the chemical reactions can also change the fundamental chemistry of our brains, influencing our attitudes and perceptions, and permanently changing our beliefs, habits, and behaviours.

These changes aren't limited to our individual experiences, either; stories can also trigger 'neural coupling', which is the technical name for that feeling we get when we 'click' with another person.

This neural coupling helps us synchronise our feelings with other people, resulting in what we call 'empathy', which sits at the heart of our need for a sense of belonging and social acceptance, and is also one of the core pillars of trust.

Given all these powerful effects - especially those relating to memory, engagement, and trust - it's easy to see why stories can add so much power to marketing.

But many marketers still struggle with what storytelling actually means, and how they should harness stories to communicate their brand's values and propositions with the world.

The first thing to note is that - fortunately - storytelling doesn't need to involve constructing an epic tale; even simple stories can trigger many of the powerful reactions and responses outlined above.

But how do marketers tell better stories?

Kepios's 10 Steps to Better Storytelling

  1. Have a clear purpose: start with a clear understanding of your desired outcome: what do you want your story's audience to think, feel, and do?
  2. Identify the benefit you offer: how is your story relevant to your audience? How does it add value to their lives or their broader world?
  3. Start strong: draw your audience into the story straight away - capture their attention, their imagination, and their emotions from the very beginning.
  4. Be authentic: make sure that every aspect of your story is coherent. It's OK - and often even a good idea - to add an element of fantasy, but your story should always stay true to fundamental human values such as good vs. evil, the eternal triumph of love, and people's need for a sense of community. It's also worth noting that people all over the world - regardless of their age or cultural background - are drawn to 'true' stories.
  5. Harness emotion: appeal to people's five - or even six - senses in order to deliver a truly engaging, memorable and shareable experience.
  6. Keep it simple: focus on the enjoyment of the experience…
  7. …but remember that drama and mystery can help you deliver a more engaging story.
  8. Make it sociable: offer people ways to involve themselves in your story, whether that's as the lead protagonist, or simply by being able to relate to one or more of your characters.
  9. Don't tell the whole story: let people interpret some of their own meaning; leaving them a few simple 'gaps' to fill can help to stimulate more powerful areas of the brain, enhancing engagement and facilitating memory.
  10. Leave people wanting more: as any fan of Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or any other serialised story will tell you, there's nothing more engaging than a cliffhanger. This is particularly important for marketers who hope to move their audiences along a 'journey'.

Going Deeper

As with so many aspects of marketing, though, storytelling is far more 'art' than 'science'.

Ultimately, great stories are all about creativity and craft.

So, my last tip for creating better stories is to set your own imagination and emotions free; immerse yourself in your story as you write it, and you're more likely to tell an engaging, compelling, and persuasive story that captures the hearts, minds, and wallets of your audience.

Oh, and in the spirit of tips #9 and #10 above, don't forget to…