The Science Of Storytelling

In addition to being a freelance filmmaker and director, I work as a Filmmaker and Storyteller at Polymath Innovations, a creative agency in Atlanta. This post was originally published at Polymath.io/blog. 

Storytelling is at the heart of what we do at Polymath. Whether we’re developing content for a book, building a presidential campaign, or making a commercial, it all starts with a story.

But why stories? You don’t have to tell a story to market something…do you? As a filmmaker, I could be accused of bias, but I contend the power of storytelling is something we all understand intuitively.

“OUR BRAINS ARE WIRED FOR STORIES.”

Think about the amount of time you spend telling stories in every day conversation. Jeremy Hsu at Scientific American conducted studies that revealed personal stories and gossip—yes, that counts too—make up 65% of our conversations. We use storytelling as a way of gaining allies, conveying ideas, and seeking empathy. You might share a story with your colleague about an interesting trip you took, or tell your spouse about a rough day at work. You might tell a story to your children as a way of teaching them.

That’s because we know stories have the power to change perspectives on the world. The movie “Jaws,” for example, instilled a cautious fear in a whole generation of beachgoers. Space films like “The Martian” often inspire people to learn about science. There are plenty of such examples.

Still, you might ask, couldn’t we just read leaflets on the dangers of sharks or listen to a presentation on the scientific value of space travel? Would our perspective not be equally changed? Not necessarily.

Brain Games

When we view information conveyed to us through written text, two key areas of our brain are activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, the language-processing parts of our brain where we decode words in to meaning.

And that’s it. Nothing else happens.

When we are told a story, however, something profoundly different happens. Not only are the language-processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use to interpret the events of the story is activated, as well.

For example, stories are typically accompanied by descriptive words that arouse our sensory perception. Studies conducted at Emory University in Atlanta and by the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France showed that metaphors and descriptive language have a more powerful impact on how we react to the retelling of some event rather than simple adjectives.

A team of researchers from Emory University reported in the journal of Brain and Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex became active. This is the part of your brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch. Metaphors like “the singer had a velvet voice” and “he had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “the singer had a pleasing voice” and “he had strong hands” did not.

Inception Is Real

This means descriptive language of the type you’d use for telling stories, rather than just transferring factual information, can work to activate many parts of our brain. Quite literally, a story can put your whole brain to work. And it gets even better.

“QUITE LITERALLY, A STORY CAN PUT YOUR WHOLE BRAIN TO WORK.”

When we tell stories to others, fictional or not, we can shift their perspective to better align with our own. Studies in what’s known as “neural coupling” have been conducted where both the storyteller and the listener’s brains were analyzed for consistencies. In one study, two people were placed in fMRI machines where one would tell a story while the other would listen. When the storyteller would have activity in a particular part of the brain, the listener would experience the exact same activity in his or her brain. In other words, simply by telling a story, the storyteller could plant thoughts and emotions in the brain of the listener.

Our brains are wired for stories. Broken down into the simplest form, a story is a connection of cause and effect, and that is exactly how we think. We create narratives in our minds to help us justify and understand our own decisions.

Next time, I’ll dive more into our own theories on what can make a story “good.” In the meantime, now that you know why stories are important, think about your marketing goals for 2017. Is storytelling a key component of your marketing mix? If not, come talk to us and let us help.

Dale Goldberg

Yes, you may have noticed Dale's initials, D-R-G. It's actually not a coincidence. When Dale started his career in film, he was only in sixteen but his talents as a storyteller earned him a job as the head of marketing at a martial arts studio - before he'd even graduated high school. Later, when he was a Lead Creative at Apple, his talents for solving problems on set and in the editing room earned him the nickname "Dr. G". Now, he applies those same skills at his own company. Dale has over ten years of experience in video and film production. He holds a degree in Marketing and Advertising from Kennesaw State University and a professional certificate in screenwriting from UCLA. He has written two feature length screenplays, directed three short films, and produced countless commercial projects. He lives in the Greater Atlanta Area with his wife and daughter and is writing his third feature length screenplay.