Stories rule the world

Every day, thousands of pieces of information strive to get our attention: reports and announcements on strategic partnerships, campaigns for innovative products, surveys using percentages and figures, photos and social media content. Yet, amidst the plethora of news and stimuli, only a few ideas reach us and pique our interest. Traditional advertising and large budgets no longer play as significant a role as they used to. Increasingly, it is messages with emotion that stimulate and connect audiences. In other words, stories.

In the world of marketing and advertising, we often think in numbers. We use ratings, sales and surveys to support what we claim. However, it is confirmed that stories, not data, are what we remember most.

Stories are more than “just” memorable. They generate emotions. They strike chords within us and connect us with what we hear or see. This is why a song makes us break into tears because it sparks something inside us, or a TV show makes us “hang on” intensely and wait for the next episode – even though we know it is just fiction.

In life, we often communicate with stories. We use them to give depth to what we want to share, to convey examples and to explain. Thanks to them we turn what we feel or what happens to us into something our audience can understand. Their effect is so immediate and so intense that they trigger the same biochemical reactions that would be triggered by similar actual events, should we in fact experience them. Research shows that when we process data, it is only the language center of the brain that is involved. Instead, stories trigger emotions that can change physiology altogether, starting with hormones. Laboratory experiments have repeatedly shown that oxytocin, the hormone of empathy, or cortisol, the hormone of stress and fear, are identified as responses to narrative content, triggering physical reactions similar to those that would occur in similar, real life circumstances.

This is why more and more businesses use stories in order to get their messages across. They pick stories that highlight the moment a new idea was born or the process out of which a popular product emerged. Stories of change that show the stages the business, product or star we love went through before finding its place in the marketplace or in our hearts. Stories of failure, often with a happy ending, that remind us that life may have its ups and downs but it largely rewards those who persist. Stories of successful leadership, describing the steps of an influential leader from the beginning to full success. Stories of inspiration and power, of truth and empathy.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Stories are as old as our world. They emerged before the written word, before the invention of the means to reproduce them. In recent years, they are revived in communications, having become a sine qua non in the media pantheon.

An Indian proverb states that ‘those who tell the stories rule the world’. Indeed, as technology evolves, this saying becomes all the more true.

Not too long ago, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon banned power point presentations from business meetings. For the company, boring introductions in which the speaker “hid” behind slides and repeatedly chanted the same words that the audience read on the screen are a thing of the past. They were replaced by stories that inspire, drive imagination, spark dialogue and sharpen judgement.

In his brief report to shareholders and executives, Bezos emphasized the need for storytelling, using words that may seem more fitting with a humanities scholar than a technocrat.

You do need the data, but then you need to check that data with your intuition and your instincts.” And went on to say: “The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it.”

March 8, 2023

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