Why is storytelling important?

In 1748, the British politician John Montagu, also known as the 4th Earl of Sandwich, had a dilemma. He loved to play cards, but he also liked to eat. The problem was, he needed one hand for the cards, which gave him just one hand for his food. So, he came up with the idea to eat beef between slices of toast, which would allow him to both hold his cards and munch on something at the same time. He delightfully solved his problem, and while doing so, unknowingly invented what would become one of the most popular foods in the western world: the sandwich.

Now you know how sandwiches were invented. But more importantly, you just read a story—and that’s significant, not because it’s time for lunch, but because it’s a way to illustrate why storytelling is so important. I didn’t just present the facts; I painted a picture. Stories matter because they trigger something in us that a PowerPoint slide with bullet points doesn’t. They ignite our imagination and emotions.

Science shows that our brains become more active when we tell stories.

If we listen to a PowerPoint presentation with a litany of facts and figures, a certain part of our brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area or the language processing parts in the brain. That’s where words get translated into something meaningful. But not much else happens.

When we listen to a story, it’s a whole different, well, story.

Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but so are the areas that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events in the story ourselves. If I’d written about how delicious the sandwich was that I ate for lunch, your sensory cortex may have lit up. If I’d talked about the mile I ran to get to the sandwich shop—and the obstacle course I had to maneuver on the way—your motor cortex would have activated.

Stories also build connection.

Think about a time when you met someone new and formed a quick friendship or bond. Chances are good that connection was forged because one or both of you shared a story, either about your family, your career, your childhood, traveling, education, hobbies and the list goes on. All stories can create a bond between the teller and the receiver, especially when a particular story resonates with both people.

The same type of thing can happen between a brand and their audience.

Whether you use pictures, a blog article, a video, an email message, postcard or a social post, storytelling helps to build a connection with your audience and light up the areas of their brains that make them feel, not just think. And with all the research that shows how much emotions drive purchasing decisions, smart marketers see storytelling as a necessary ingredient in their marketing mix. Antonio and Hanna Damasio, USC Professors of Neuroscience, studied how emotions shape our thoughts. It turns out, they play a huge role—in fact, we don’t fully learn without them. Stories take facts and details we want to remember and put them into an emotional structure.

5 Steps to telling a great story.

So, now that we’ve talked about the why, let’s focus on the how. A lot of us are great storytellers in a crowd of friends or with our family around the table, but we freeze up at the thought of telling our brand’s story to people we don’t know.

Let’s clear that hurdle now with these five tips that’ll help you on the path from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.”

1. Talk about specific people and share real-life scenarios.

A good story paints a picture, so you want to be specific. Instead of, “We helped this man get on his feet,” try, “We got Jim the clothes he needed for his first job interview, and now he’s gainfully employed.” Specifics matter. At Firespring, we like to create what we call “case studies”—really, just a fancy word for stories about clients we’ve worked with and what happened as a result.

Instead of telling you that we can help your business or organization get results, we share stories of businesses and nonprofits (and the people behind them) who we helped to actually get results. Ever wonder why testimonials and peer reviews are so popular? They come from real people—in a sense, they’re mini stories. And our brains like (and trust) the connections they create.

2. Use words that stir emotions.

Try to steer clear of industry jargon and use words that appeal to people’s senses and emotions. Instead of, “Our coffee is made with 100% arabica beans,” try “The best part of waking up is . . .”—oh wait, someone did that already. But you see what I mean, right? To some coffee connoisseurs, arabica beans may be a real selling point, but is it memorable? Probably not as memorable as the image of someone in their PJs breathing in the heady aroma of a freshly brewed cup, looking like all of their problems are floating away in the steam.

A good test: When you write or create your story, does it make you feel something? Joy? Pain? Nostalgia? Hopeful? If so, it will likely do the same for your audience.

3. Keep it simple and focused.

You can tell more than one story, that’s perfectly fine—but don’t try to tell them all at one time in one video or one social post or one landing page on your website. We get caught up in quantity over quality sometimes and think, “But I need to tell them everything that our company does so they have a full picture, all at once, of every product and service we have ever offered, forever and ever, amen.”

No, you don’t. Choose one story and use it several ways so you get it out into the wild and it touches as many as possible, and then move on to the next. If you try to do it all at once, you just end up confusing people—and then the only emotion you’ve triggered is confusion. Thank you, next.

4. Share results and transformations using descriptive words.

How has your business or organization changed lives? Maybe you’re a dental office, and Sarah now feels less ashamed of her smile—you gave her the gift of confidence. Or maybe you sell security systems, and Mary, a single mother of three, isn’t anxious when she goes to bed at night—you gave her the gift of peace. Explain what you do and how it made a difference, not for you, but for the audience you serve. The more specific you can be, the better the connection you’ll create (remember the neuroscience factoids from above).

5. Keep it short.

If you’re speaking, you should be able to tell a great story in two minutes or less. When writing, keep your story to around 500 words, if possible—or write a few versions so you have a longer format for your blog, a shorter version for your direct mail or newsletter and a very succinct version for social media. If you’re making a video, challenge yourself to keep it to 60-90 seconds. Three minutes at the most.

Why? Short attention spans, my friend! We are a society full of busy bees and small, digestible sound bites, and ain’t nobody got time for a 10-minute video except for maybe your friends, family and your most passionate supporters or customers. If you’re still reading, congrats on making it this far—your attention span is to be applauded. Hopefully the short sandwich story I told at the beginning was what hooked you enough to keep reading and stay till the finish.

How can you get started?

Now, let’s talk logistics: If you’re thinking, “Great—you’ve sold me on storytelling, but I have no idea where to start,” I’d say, “No worries! You’re in the right place.” Fortunately, we have a whole slew of storytellers at the ready, and we’d love to bring your brand to life. Let’s turn your “once upon a time” into a “happily ever after.”