The Surprising Science Behind Stories that Convert — 5 Mind-Blowing Facts
It’s a sunny day at the beach. A young couple is out on a date, enjoying themselves.
But what’s this? Some random guy decides it would be funny to kick sand in their faces and ruin their day!
The young man tries to stand up to the bully — but he’s too scrawny, and the sand-kicker is built like a brick shed. Luckily, the fight doesn’t break out… but the pitying glances from his girlfriend hurt our hero more than any beating!
And so the young man decides: enough is enough. Through vigorous training, he transforms himself into a glorious muscular stud…
…and next time, it’s the bully who slinks away, tail tucked firmly between his legs!
Now, this is actually a loose retelling of a famous cartoon ad from the 1940s. This ad ran for many decades, selling training products by Charles Atlas — a famous strongman and “The World’s Most Perfect Man.”
By any standard, it’s an incredibly simple and straightforward story. And yet, it helped Atlas build an “information product” empire… decades before the internet and waaay before people felt comfortable buying information.
Plus, it became one of the most recognizable and widely referenced (and parodied) ads of all time!
This is just one example of a simple story that converts. And there are many, many more… So today, we wanted to answer a few important questions:
Why do we love stories so much? What does science tell us about the power of storytelling? And most importantly, how can we apply this to business and marketing?
You will learn:
- Why urban legends are so incredibly memorable
- What happens to our brain when we hear a good story
- What makes stories endure for thousands of years
- A simple checklist for making your story irresistible
Now join us as we examine 5 amazing scientific facts about stories and storytelling!
1. Stories activate our brain as if we’re living them
Have you ever suffered through a tedious presentation… only to forget everything you’ve “learned” 5 minutes after it was over?
We’ve all been there. It happens all the time — even if the speaker oozes charm and the topic is interesting. Here’s why: when we’re presented new information in a straightforward way as bullet points or simple facts, only the language processing part of our brain gets involved.
Sure, we understand what’s being said… but that’s about it! There’s no deeper engagement going on.
So, for example, here’s a random list of words: Sunday, mushrooms, John, frying pan, rain, afternoon, dinner, cabin. You know what each word means — but that’s as much work as your brain is going to do without context!
But when we get the same information in the form of a story, something awesome happens. According to neuroscientist Jeremy Hsu, our brain starts to process it in the same way as if we’re actually experiencing those events!
Like so: “It was a rainy Sunday afternoon. John went out and came back soaking wet, carrying a basketful of bright-orange chanterelles. He threw them into the frying pan. The mushrooms sizzled loudly, and the smell of delicious dinner filled John’s cabin.”
This story engages more than just the language processing part of your brain. It lights up your sensory cortex as you imagine how John got drenched in the rain. It activates your visual cortex as you picture the look of those mushrooms — and your olfactory cortex as you guess how delicious they must have smelled.
The end result is a compelling experience, much more so than just a boring list of facts! Use this to your advantage next time you need to engage an audience!
2. The secret to memorable stories — the SUCCESs model
Of course, an engaging story isn’t necessarily memorable. We’ve all sat through an enjoyable 2-hour movie only to forget all about its plot as soon as the credits roll.
So why do some stories “stick” — and others fade?
In their book “Made to Stick,” researchers Chip and Dan Heath formulated 6 ingredients behind memorable ideas, which they labeled as the SUCCESs model.
According to them, the “stickiest” ideas are:
- Simple — as in, they boil your message idea down to its core (like a company’s USP or a fairytale’s moral).
- Unexpected — they use plot twists and a sense of mystery to make the audience want to get all the information they possibly can.
- Concrete — they paint a vivid mental picture with words or visuals, engaging multiple types of memory and grounding your message in realistic details.
- Credible — they use proof like statistics, explanations, or corroboration from outside sources.
- Emotional — they use relatable characters and make the message personally relevant to the audience (the famous “What’s In It For Me?” question).
- Stories — according to Chip and Dan Heath, the most memorable ideas come in the form of stories, which is exactly what we’re saying here!
Urban legends are the perfect example of stories that check all these boxes. You definitely remember at least one of those, even if you’ve only heard it once in your life when you were young! Like this one about a smelly hotel bed (warning: it’s really disturbing).
So next time you need to add some pizzaz to your marketing message, just go through the SUCCESs checklist and see if it’s missing any of these must-haves!
3. Stories change how we perceive reality
We all know that art takes inspiration from real life. But just as often, the opposite can be true: art (and stories in particular) can shape the way people think about real life — and even the way they behave.
Cultivation theory is one of the most widely used and often-cited frameworks in mass-communications research. It states that the media we consume affects how we perceive the world.
For example, popular crime procedurals like CSI have an effect on real-life jurors where they start thinking about forensic science as basically “magical.” This makes them biased in favor of forensic evidence — which is often misleading and fallible in real life!
This is just one example of how stories can shape the way we see the world. They don’t change our beliefs directly, but they can affect the values and beliefs we already hold. When the world doesn’t make sense, we often project fictional narratives onto it to find meaning that resonates with us personally.
What does this mean for you as a business owner? When you market to your target customers, you can use stories to appeal to their existing values more effectively — and encourage them to take action.
Like, remember the story we told at the beginning of this article, about a young man becoming strong and standing up to his bully? It wouldn’t work unless the reader already saw physical fitness and strength as something worth pursuing.
All that story did was help them believe that they could do it, too!
4. Stories can engage both “fast” and “slow” thinking
OK, we’ve just established that stories don’t necessarily change people’s beliefs and values…
But what if that’s exactly what you need to do? Do you carefully build a purely rational, logical argument to try and change your audience’s mind?
No! Believe it or not, when it comes to persuading someone, storytelling is still your best bet. Here’s why…
According to Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the human mind uses two modes of thinking:
- “Fast” — intuitive and emotional
- And “slow” — more deliberate and logical
We need both of these to function in the world. Relying only on logic or only on intuition can make us biased and lead to some truly horrible long-term consequences.
Storytelling has the power to make emotion and logic work together to deliver the message. A good story can activate both our “fast” and “slow” thinking to help us understand ourselves, and the world, more deeply.
That’s why the best non-fiction books don’t just bombard you with facts and figures — they use individual stories to reveal the big picture and persuade readers to take their ideas seriously. Same goes for investigative reporting, documentaries, memoirs, you name it. Even straight-up fictional stories can use made-up events and personalities to tell us something true about the real world!
When you tell a story to your target market, always start from a place of emotion. Then, use reason and logic to make your case and guide them to a conclusion. Remember: people aren’t rational, and stories are the best way to reach them!
5. Storytelling is already the most popular form of communication
“We are all storytellers.”
You’ve probably heard this one before. On the surface, this phrase sounds like a feel-good platitude — something that sounds true but probably isn’t.
Well, guess what? It totally is!
First of all, storytelling is at least as old as human society and probably as old as language itself. The oldest recorded stories have been around for 6,000+ years, and there are definitely many more that were lost to time for different reasons.
But hey, all it means is that some old stories have stuck around. So what?
But wait, there’s more: science says that 65% of our daily communication is based on stories. Whenever you tell your spouse how your day went, tell a joke, remember something from your past, explain why you were late, or communicate with other people in any way — chances are, you’re telling a story!
So if you’re trying to come up with ideas on how to talk to your target market, storytelling should be the first thing you try — not an afterthought. If you do anything else, you’re essentially trying to reinvent the wheel and communicate in a way that’s less optimal!
There’s a reason we have been telling stories for thousands of years. There’s a reason why, whenever we invent a new art form or a way to transmit information, we immediately use it to tell stories in new ways. And the reason is simple:
And if you want to get better at marketing your brand, one of the best (if not THE best) things you can do is learn to tell stories that convert.
Let us help you do just that!
Join our Founder and CEO Summer, Felix-Mulder, on her weekly live broadcasts on Instagram, where she will show you how to use brand storytelling to generate more leads, convert more customers, and grow your business.
Summer will be dropping her knowledge bombs every Thursday at 1 pm PST, starting this week. So make sure you follow her @thedrawshop and tune in!