Why narrative is worth its weight in gold
It’s a matter of grey matter
Brains. They drink too much coffee. They haven’t been out much (at least not recently). They have overbearing bosses, budget constraints and are teaching the kids biology in their spare time.
Imagine a brain sitting there one Monday morning in early February. The brain is filled with a growing sense of existential ennui. It’s only the beginning of the week, and, already, it is swamped with data: a tsunami of statistics and product specifications, claims and counterclaims by manufacturers, return on investment projections and sales forecasts.
Amid this formless deluge of information, it’s difficult to make decisions. (We know that our capacity to process information and make decisions reduces when there are no distinctive or straightforward options presented to us. In this scenario, the brain is at risk of not choosing at all.)
The brain is craving stimulation (just not of the caffeinated variety). It wants to be inspired. Moved, even. Because it’s not data that changes behaviour, it’s emotions.
And that’s where telling stories comes in.
Placing safety at the forefront of the mind
Stories are powerful because they generate emotion, anticipation, excitement and empathy. They show we’re human, displaying our vulnerability. And when a story engages us, we’re more likely to absorb its meaning (and remember the message) than if the same concept is presented to us in plain old facts and figures.
Here’s an example.
The scene is a building site in Trondheim, Norway, and construction worker Jozef is working away as normal.
At first, he doesn’t recognise the young woman approaching him, decked out in regulation PPE, with a hard hat and safety glasses. But as she approaches, the realisation dawns that it’s his daughter, Patrycja, and his disbelief slowly gives way to delight. Beaming, a stunned Jozef tells the nearby crew: “I can’t believe she’s here! Wow!”
Patrycja, a psychology student in Krakow, has made the 1,000-mile journey from Poland to deliver a message, and it’s a serious message: ‘Please, if not for you then for me – come home in one piece!’ To hammer the point home, she presents Jozef with a personalised sticker bearing the same message for him to put on his hard hat, helping keep the health and safety message at the forefront of his mind, and his colleagues’ minds, long into the future.
The clip, one of a series created by Spoon for construction giant Skanska’s 2019 health and safety campaign was a reminder that for the children of construction workers, safety on site isn’t just a bunch of rules to follow; it’s life and death. And it’s people’s families who feel the anxiety around Skanska’s employees’ wellbeing each day.
In short, for every stat, there’s a story – and of the two, it’s stories that win people’s hearts and minds.
The construction workers who watched the videos gave 100% approval to the campaign slogan and 92% approval for the clips, fulfilling the campaign’s objective of overcoming widespread desensitization to health and safety messaging. (Here’s the behavioural science bit: each mini-movie makes great use of ‘the surprise effect’: the power of unscripted, personal, generous acts to foster positive experiences.)
The science of storytelling
There are sound biological reasons for telling stories beyond their intuitive appeal. They make audiences feel connections by prompting a surge of feel-good chemicals responsible for qualities such as empathy and compassion, like the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, for example.
But a great tale does even more: as well as helping us empathise with the teller and firing love drugs around our brains, it makes the information they convey more likely to be stored and later retrieved. That’s why data, that relentless staple of the B2B market, often isn’t enough to win the day: our brains process information much more effectively when that information is accompanied by emotions. (Research has shown that statistics accompanied by anecdotes are much more likely to be remembered than raw statistics.)
And it’s not just about living in the memory. Brands with powerful narratives (in B2B, Mailchimp’s origin story is a great example) are also perceived as more valuable.
In one experiment, 20 people were split into two groups. Half were given a story and photo about a new cosmetics product, and half were not. The result? The people in the ‘story’ group saw the new product as higher value.
Not only that, but they were also twice as willing to buy it.
Give me certainty or give me death
Our brains often have extremely strong preference for the current state of affairs (‘status quo bias’) and we crave clarity over chance (‘certainty effect’). It’s why change in large organisations, and the sales cycle for high-value services can take a really long time.
We need to find a way to get around this. One method is to tell a story that recognises these limitations but then moves beyond them.
For example, you can:
- Begin your narrative by acknowledging the status quo, explaining listing why it’s been such a good option for so many, for so long. Makes total sense that we like it.
- Show how the world is changing and why people who persist with the current state of affairs risk being left behind. It’s riskier to stick with the status quo than to change.
- Finish up by explaining how in that new world, the product or service you’re marketing will allow the customer to stay ahead of the game.
This simple storytelling structure is seen in this campaign from Oracle for the banking sector and a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary for business comms platform Slack. A similar concept underpins the classic commercial three-part copywriting formula, problem – agitate – solve. Identify the problem, dig into the customer’s pain point (remembering the importance of emotion), and provide the solution.
It’s storytelling techniques like these that will help people remember your company, demonstrate that you understand and empathise with problems your customers are facing, and have the solution they need to hand.
So, when you’re working on your next B2B campaign, don’t drown your prospect in data. Pump the potential client’s grey matter full of love chemicals. Ask yourself, ‘what’s the story?’ and spin a yarn so compelling they can’t ignore you.
That’s how you’ll make them feel ‘seen’ and position yourself as the trusted partner they’ve been looking for. And not only that, telling stories will make your products feel more valuable – and, crucially, make your customers even more likely to snap them up.