November 29, 2016

Evergreen Stories Part 1: Why Tell Your Story?

I’m currently rewriting my book for copywriters, the Nurture Email Code. The book title is likely to change in the next few weeks, to ‘Evergreen Business Stories’.

Over the next 7 days I’m going to publish a series of excerpts from the revised book, allowing you to read it as it is written. A bit like how Charles Dickens, or Alexandre Dumas wrote their books; in exciting instalments :-).

Instalment one is below.

“Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type, it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are.”
Aristotle

As far as we know, humans are more developed than any other animal in our ability to imagine events and happenings through our mind’s eye. Aristotle called this our ability to ‘imitate’. To imagine scenes and events that exist outside of ourselves. To ‘play through’ and draw lessons from past events, possible future events, and even events that will never come into existence.

You spend your entire day swimming in a sea of stories. Imagine for a moment that we met up one afternoon for coffee. How would you answer the following questions?

  • What do you do for a living?
  • How did you get into that?
  • How has your year to date been?
  • How is your day so far been?

All of these questions get answered with a story. It may be a mundane story about regular day-to-day happenings, but each answer would be a story, nonetheless.

I see people telling stories and listening to stories, every time I step outside the house. Every time I go to the local pub, there are people telling stories. Every time I catch a tram, there are people telling (sometimes juicy) stories, albeit often through the medium of a mobile telephone.

Stories are like the fabric of life; our way of viewing the world. As you tell your stories you leave little fingerprints on that fabric. Each story you tell contains a microscopic slice of your experience as a person.

Real vs Non-Real events

As the picture-reels of your imagination roll in your head, your mind’s eye is very poor at distinguishing between real and non-real events. Even when you’re asleep, a dream can still feel real. The fear you feel when you first wake up from a nightmare is real physical response to something that has scared you.

When you’re in the cinema watching a film, the emotions you feel are also real. If the story is good we feel genuine fear when the hero of the story gets into danger. We feel real discomfort when they make poor decisions.

Neuroscientists have found (see reference 1) that when we watch somebody who is in pain, it activates the area of our own brain called the ‘pain matrix’. In real time your brain runs a compelling simulation of what it would be like in the character’s situation. This simulation is the basis of empathy; the ability to feel the emotions of others. To an extent you really do feel their pain.

The way we feel empathy may be more complicated than we realise. In a fascinating experiment, the neuroscientists showed two groups of people a shocking film, and measured the pain matrix activity in the particuipants’ brains. One group of participants consisted only of Botox users; people who inject their facial muscles with the paralysis toxin Botox. The second group was made up of non-botox users. The Botox users showed a lower pain matrix response to the film.

When we meet or see another person, it seems we temporarily mirror the other person’s facial expressions to help us read their emotions. It’s almost like we ‘try on’ their facial expression, to see for ourselves how they are feeling. People with less control over their face may lose some capacity to feel empathy.

All of this helps to explain why a story, which we know not to be real, triggers the real emotional response we can feel. It helps to explain why we can cry at a film or television programme, even when the acting is less than exceptional. We feel an emotion because over the course of a story we build a connection with the hero or heroine. To a degree we end up walking in their shoes, trying on their emotions.

You don’t choose whether or not you feel these emotions. Assuming your facial muscles are working correctly, it’s an autonomic physical response.

When you tell stories in your marketing, you’re really building an emotional connection with your reader. You’re building a connection so that when you need to ask them for something, you already have their trusting attention.

A well-told story can introduce the same trance-like state of attention that a dream can command. You’re in a trance-like state of attention when you stop noticing everything else. When you stop noticing what time it is, or that the potatoes are boiling over, or that the bath has gone cold.

Everybody has to sell, in some capacity. Whether you are selling yourself, your products or your ideas, you can only transact a deal with someone if you have their attention. And attention has become increasingly hard to keep hold of.

You can get the attention of potential customers easily enough. You can post something attention-grabbing on Facebook, or Twitter. But keeping that attention beyond the initial interaction, or the initial ‘like’, has become difficult. If a customer is going to spend good money with you, they have to know, like and trust you. Building this trust requires an extended period of attention, not just a flash-in-the-pan Facebook post.

In my opinion, storytelling is the best way to keep the attention of your audience over a long period of time. But why do stories generate this level of ongoing attention? Why are we so in-tune with stories?

Why do we seem to have a story-radar, blipping around in our minds?

Continued tomorrow.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.

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