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Leadership

Why A Good Story Is The Most Important Thing You'll Ever Sell

Start selling stories, not products or solutions, and you'll connect to your consumer on a deeper level.

[Screenshot: via Coco-Inside Chanel]

The fascination with stories has been a hallmark of mankind across cultures.

From the cave paintings of Neanderthal Man to the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians to the Greek epics that were handed down the centuries, stories have recorded history, passed on wisdom, and set rules for moral behavior.

What is Story-Selling?

"Story selling" is an attempt by marketers to combine the art of story-telling with the process of selling.

Story-sellers weave stories around their brands, stories that make users come begging for more. Take Chanel, for example, it's a brand that is so infused with the spirit of its iconic founder Coco Chanel that it needs no introduction to users around the world. Take a look at how Chanel beautifully weaves Coco Chanel’s story into their own in this superbly done brand video.

What makes us so curious about ‘What happens next’? What makes us so intrigued by stories, even when they have to do with brands and commercial entities? Science shows us that our brains are hardwired to seek out and apply stories for enjoyment, social interactions, gaining an edge over others, even plain old survival.

How Stories Affect Our Brains

Stories Act as Guidelines for Future Behavior

According to cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, one of the reasons we love fiction is because these stories give us a template of what to do if we ever find ourselves in a situation described in the story—stories are cognitive tools that we store away for future reference.

A study led by Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist with York University in 2010 found that preschoolers who were exposed to stories had far superior social skills and ability to empathize with others than those who did not.

In short, stories help improve readers’ social interpersonal skills and tell them how to behave in situations that haven’t happened yet.

Apparel brand Toms uses this insight very effectively to influence the behavior of thousands of fans in their annual "One Day Without Shoes" campaign.

Toms uses a strong story-selling platform to convince thousands of fans every year, to spend an entire day without shoes on to raise awareness of the millions of children around the world who have no shoes.

Stories Alter Brain Chemistry And Make Listeners More Open To Ideas

Paul Zak, Director of the Center of Neuroeconomics at the Claremont Graduate University conducted an interesting study on the effects of stories on brain chemistry.

Zak and his team exposed a test audience to two stories—one that had a father talk about his emotional state caring for his son Ben, a two year old battling terminal cancer and the other that showed Ben and his father spending a day at the zoo.

So the first story had a clear hook, an emotional exchange, a tragic element and a heroic father struggling through those odds, while the second story makes no mention of cancer and is just a day spent at the zoo by any average father and son.

At the end of each video, test participants were told that they could to donate all or some of their participation fees to a charity, if they so desired. Results showed that participants who saw the first story were more generous and charitable, while they were significantly less so after watching the second video.

On studying the neurochemical interactions among their test groups, Zak and his team found that during the first video, their audience’s brains produced a high degree of oxytocin—the neurochemical that makes us trusting, empathetic and open to others. On the other hand, the second video triggered no such emotional response that resulted in no "empathy chemicals" being produced, which led to lower contributions to charity.

In other words, a compelling story with an emotional trigger alters our brain chemistry, making us more trusting, understanding of others, and open to ideas.

Labeling Something as ‘Fact’ Makes People Question More

Marketers have become adept at using numbers, statistics, and user data at making decisions. Business analytics dashboards like Cyfe help you measure the smallest changes to website visitor maps, funnel value, number of qualified leads, cross-channel impressions, or even social media followers’ engagement and then present customized plans to your customers.

However, steering your customers down this research based purchase path can be a slippery proposition. Counterintuitive though it may seem, research shows that the more you present facts to a user, the more she questions the veracity of your argument. When a user is presented "facts" you are appealing to the logical, rational side of their brains. The user then approaches the situation in an analytical (as opposed to emotional) frame of mind and tries to reason out the benefits using the facts presented and their own judgment.

There is research to support the theory that users are more swayed by non-factual factors to make purchase decisions. The impact of Oscar winning movie Sideways on the sales of Pinot Noir and Merlot in the United States has been immortalized as the "Sideways Effect." Sideways was a road movie set in California’s wine country which had lead actor Paul Giamatti—a wine aficionado—declaring his love for Pinot Noir throughout the movie. In one instance, he derides Merlot and refuses to touch it. The movie led to a strong upswing in the sales of Pinot Noir and a less drastic drop in the sales of Merlot in 2005.

The bottom line? Facts can be questioned and rationalized, but when a beloved character that audiences empathize with endorses a particular product ardently, users take to it no questions asked.

Things to Keep in Mind When Story-Selling

A great story seller begins with a hook that entices curiosity. Open with a statement that will make the user want to hear more.

Keep your story minimalist in its form. The more longwinded your story is, the more chances your listeners’ attention will wander.

Contrast a clear "before" and "after" situation in your story to show the user the benefits that your product brings with it. Take notes from how GE presents its human face through this moving story of a GE engineer who built a bionic arm for a stranger without an arm.

Make sure you have a happy ending. Biology supports happy endings in stories by releasing the neurochemical dopamine into our limbic systems that leaves us feeling good about ourselves and the brand associated with the story.

A great story does not just live inside best-selling novels or Hollywood blockbusters. Every brand carries a story hidden inside of it. All you need to do is draw it out and retell it to your audience to let them make your brand their own.

Rohan Ayyar is a startup-focused marketer involved in creative content strategy, web analytics and conversion optimization at E2M, a premium digital marketing firm. He is also an avid writer, with posts featured on Entrepreneur, Social Media Today, and Business Insider, among other places. Follow him on Twitter @searchrook.

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