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Once Upon a Time There Was a Copywriter...

The Age-old Recipe of Storytelling Could Yield Results for Even the Most Sophisticated Marketeer.

Here’s a bit of marketing jargon for you: “hard-wired”. What’s interesting about it is that writers, marketers, psychologists and neuroscientists all agree that we are hard-wired for story. I agree, too, but before we start to lift the lid – literally – on the brain to discover why, let’s just make sure we know what we mean by this term.

It means that there are anatomical, neurological and biochemical structures, pathways and circuits in the brain that are encoded specifically to respond to stories. We do not need to be taught to respond to stories. We do not need to acquire this capability. It is inbuilt. It is, to venture a second time into cliché, in our DNA.

Every human being is programmed from conception to respond to stories. So if you’re in the communications business – as a copywriter, marketer, salesperson, politician, novelist or journalist – you should, at the very least, be aware of this fact.

Funnily enough, the second triad of that group – the politicians, scribes and journos – have no problem with the idea of storytelling.

It’s why, even if you are launching a serious piece of market research at a press conference, as I did once, the journalists present still want to know how old you are. It’s called human interest.

It’s why authors often derided by literary critics for their flat and unimaginative prose style sell books by the truckload.

It’s why politicians still like to talk to “ordinary people” because they can then feed those stories into conference speeches to prove they’re in touch.

Strangely, marketers, copywriters and salespeople can often be resistant to the idea that telling stories is a great way to convince people. I have been told on more than one occasion that “stories are for children” and “stories don’t work in B2B”. Stranger still, these same people will often be quite happy to commission case studies. But what are case studies if not stories?


Why are We Hard-wired to Respond to Stories?

To understand where stories derive their power from, we have to do a little brain surgery. So, scrub your hands, sharpen your saw, and take a look.

As the skull hinges back, we are presented first with a squiggly mass of greyish tissue, folded in on itself in a seemingly random arrangement of hills and valleys. These "sulci" (from the Latin for furrow) and "gyri" (from the Latin for circle or circuit) give the brain its characteristic folded appearance much beloved by zombie-film directors. Crudely put, they are responsible for higher functions like reason, logic and communication (BORING!).

Get out your scalpel and let’s take a big, deep slice and get rid of all that stuff (let the zombies have it). We are after something buried much deeper – the limbic system. The limbic system, which I have talked about in another post in this series, is where we process both stories and emotions.

Read your patient a story after hooking them up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) and the limbic system lights up like a firework display. Had you not fed the cerebral cortex to the zombies, it would be dark.

The limbic system is a very old part of the brain and (a gross oversimplification) its main job is to keep us safe enough to reproduce. It’s a primitive smoke detector screwed to the ceiling of our brains. In earlier times, let’s say 200,000 years ago, it would start pealing if we were faced with a threat; a lion wanting to eat us, say. Our systems would flood with adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) and we would run away. Fast.

In the absence of actual threats, our ancestors still had to communicate the types of threats we might face and what to do about them. Otherwise, we’d walk up to the nice big kitty and try to stroke it. So they told stories. They didn’t have to make them up either. They just retold events that had already happened…


The Story of Ug Johnson and the Kitty

“I’m afraid Ug Johnson can’t be with us today,” said the tribal leader, twitching at the necklace of teeth at his throat.

“What happened, Chief?” said Og Smith.

“Last night, he went up to one of those nice kitties that wander around the village after dark and tried to stroke it. And guess what?”


“It ate him!”

“No way!”


After that, the tribespeople were careful to avoid the kitties and renamed them “lion”, which meant “bad-kitty-who-eats-people” in their language.

They went home and told the story to their children. And in this way, the knowledge of what was safe to stroke and what wasn’t became passed down. The ones who paid attention survived long enough to reproduce. The ones who didn’t, didn’t.

In this way, storytelling and story listening eventually became encoded into our very DNA. It conferred an evolutionary advantage. Nature selected for story.

Here’s another interesting fact about our brains and stories. When we listen to a story, from the moment we realise it is a story, our brains secrete dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that stimulates pleasure centres in our brains. Our brains reward us for paying attention to stories. We are addicted to stories.


Why Do People Shy Away From Stories?

Given this amazing power to modify our behaviour, you’d think more people would want to give storytelling a shot as part of their marketing campaigns.

As I said, politicians and political leaders (which aren’t always the same thing) have embraced the power of story to further their causes. Demosthenes, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton; they all knew stories moved people, not policy prescriptions. So what’s holding marketers back?

I can think of a number of reasons...

  1. You have to do a lot of research to get a story just right. That takes time, energy and a lot of hard work. You might even have to talk to customers. Knocking out a clever pun can be done in isolation or over a game of pool in the writers’ room.

  2. Stories suffer from an image problem. We hear the word “story” and think of the tales we tell our children before bed. Yet, after work, in the pub, we do little else but exchange stories.

  3. They seem too simple. “Surely for a high-tech product like ours,” said Mel, the lead developer, “we should be explaining how it works and listing all the features and benefits, not telling stories.”


…When Stories Work Well

But stories work, and I have the evidence to prove it. One of the best-performing pieces of copywriting of all time is the so-called $2 billion sales letter. Written in 1974 by a freelance copywriter named Martin Conroy, it was promoting subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal. It ran, unchanged and unbeaten in A/B tests, until 2005. When it was, finally, beaten – by a longer version of the same letter.

It began with a story.

At my agency, we have written many hundreds of direct response campaigns for direct mail and email. When tested, story-style leads (the opening few paragraphs) have always pulled in more orders than the control they were run against.

Does this mean every piece of copy you write should be a story? No. Does it mean every time you write a story it has to be a complete narrative that occupies all of the available space on the screen or page? No.

What it does mean is that there is a scientifically proven method of communicating information that has been changing the way people have felt, thought and acted since the Stone Age. The ingredients are incredibly simple: a protagonist (the hero), a problem or challenge, the action they take to meet the challenge and some form of change or transformation they undergo.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or even a neuroscientist – to see how this age-old recipe could yield results for even the most sophisticated marketer.

If you want some practical guidance on how to do it, try my book, Persuasive Copywriting.