This is Your Brain on Stories: The Biology of Mind-Blowing Marketing

It was a cold night in the semi-rural suburb of a major US metropolis, and his deadline was fast approaching. The wind rushing past his poorly sealed windows mocked him, as frantic yet steady as the blinking of the cursor and as empty as the screen in front of him.

Staring steadily back at it with growing determination, our hero flexed his fingers and, with new resolve, began to type.

This client had a story to tell, and damned if he wasn't the one to tell it.

Storytelling—and story hearing/reading/viewing—is an essential part of the human condition. Our brain is built to box things into beginning, middle, and end; to connect events in a dramatic arc that leads inevitably to the current state of things and our position in it. We feel compelled to tell stories from out personal lives that no one else has the slightest interest in, and we're forced by our sense of social decorum to listen to others' stories when they're compelled to do the same.

This isn't just armchair philosophising, either. When we're engaged in a story, whether we're in the position of the teller or the audience, our brains react as though we're actually living through the narrative ourselves. Stories trigger our natural empathy on a chemical and electrical level that we still don't entirely understand. Our brains light up and form connections during a storytelling experience the same way they do during real life experiences, and chemical cascades throughout the rest of our bodies can make the experience all the more real.

If you've ever been forced to blushingly change channels due to the extreme embarrassment you find yourself sharing with a character in a TV show or movie, you know exactly what I mean.

In fact, if you want to put someone in a specific emotional state you'll have better luck with a story that takes its characters through the emotion you are after than you will with attempts to elicit a direct emotional response. That's why romantic comedies make such great date movies: they're light-hearted and relaxed, and the characters manage to break through their emotional barriers and get down to gettin' down. Audience members frequently leave in a similar mood.

The best marketing takes advantage of our irresistible affinity for an engaging story, taking us on an emotional ride that brings us closer to the brand and convinces us that we need whatever it is they're selling.


He sat back, the bottle of bourbon at hand and the blog post in front of him both half finished. The wind's tone had changed from a gloating taunt to an uncertain whine, and the deadline that once has loomed like the sharpened, shine edge of a guillotine now seemed as inconsequential as a scheduled haircut.

Re-reading the words his fingers has wrought—thoughts rendered digitally in more than one sense—our hero nodded in approval and a soupcon of self-satisfaction.

It was good. Informative, but not textbook boring. Yet, it was also entirely descriptive; he'd have to step up the action oriented advice in the second half to give his readers their money's worth.

Making Messaging That Drips into Their Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Aristotle described six elements of storytelling and ranked them in order of importance.

At the bottom are Sound and Spectacle, which can support a good story but which can't do anything to save a bad one (sorry, Michael Bay). Next came Thought—the ideas expressed in the story—which are less important than Diction—the words chosen to express the ideas (marketers, take note). Of greatest importance are well-rounded and identifiable Characters and, at the very pinnacle, a Plot full of conflict puts those characters—and the audience—through an emotional catharsis in its resolution.

Theorists have been arguing about Aristotle for centuries, but storytellers have been putting his formula to use even longer.

And it works.

You can see the conflict-resolution-catharsis arc in everything from "As Seen on TV" commercials ("Tired of doing laundry the old fashioned way? This new detergent makes you far less incompetent. Now your spouse loves you again!") to inexplicably popular novels and movies ("Tired of trying to choose between the buff werewolf and the spindly and sparkly bloodsucker? This new baby will do the trick. Now your vampire husband loves you again!").

You can use it in your marketing, too. And it doesn't need to be nearly as cheesy as the examples above. It's a technique used in sales and explainer videos, landing pages, sales letters, and more, all the time.

Instead of simply leaping into a description of what your product or service does, you introduce a problem that people—people just like your target audience—regularly encounter in their lives. A problem you connect to real human emotions, possibly using real world testimonials or fictional characters to show people in conflict with their current way of doing things.

Low and behold, a new product/service enters to save the day, and not only does everything work better but everyone feels better. There's been an emotional breakthrough, and everyone engaged in the story will get the same catharsis when they buy.

If you're advertising something people are already familiar with, Your story doesn't even have to be directly related to your product. People know how beer works; when's the last time you saw a commercial about beer as a tool for quenching thirst and/or escaping sobriety? That's what beer's for, but beer commercials are all about having fun, being sexy, and the other emotional achievements you can unlock when you have alcohol to suppress your poor self-esteem.

It's catharsis time, bro!


He started awake. The small pool of dried spit pulling slightly on his cheek as he lifted his face from the desk. Scrolling back through his final paragraphs, his stomach flexed like a Venice Beach bodybuilder as a cold sweat dappled his shoulders like morning dew.

Maybe it was the impending hangover, but maybe, just maybe—it was one last gnawing doubt.

Had he impressed upon them the importance of storytelling? Had they understood the psychologic, biologic, even atomic power a good story could wield in the mind of a buyer?

Only time—and perhaps the comments section, would tell.