Like me, I’m sure there have been many times you’ve been unable to switch off that otherwise awful movie or put down that badly written pulp novel (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you). Meanwhile, another technically brilliant film or book with exceptional production values just can’t hold your attention.

The difference is the story.

At Content Marketing World 2018, Joe Lazauskas — head of content at Contently and co-author of The Storytelling Edge — talked to me about narratives, neurons, and … Jason Biggs.

JC: Why is neuroscience the best argument for marketers to hone their storytelling skills?

JL: Storytelling is seen as this wishy-washy ephemeral thing, but that’s actually not true. As human beings we are programmed for stories. They’re part of who we are. It’s how we evolved to understand our place in the world before we had written language, how we passed on lessons for where to find food, or what threats were coming for us, or how to build relationships within our tribes and our families. As human beings, we’re programmed to respond to stories.

A few different things happen when we hear a really good story. The first is that the neural activity in our brain increases fivefold. Stories illuminate the city of our mind.

Essentially our brains run on electrical pulses, and when we hear stories our brains light up. Neuroscientists have this saying that neurons that fire together, wire together. So, when we’re hearing a story and our brain is lighting up, you have all of these neurons that are then wiring together, which triggers us to remember more of the information we’re getting.

“Stories make us remember and make us care. Content marketing works because our brains are programmed for stories.” @JoeLazauskas at #CMWorld Share on X

Stories do another thing: They trigger the release of this neurochemical called oxytocin, which is known in some circles as the love drug. About ten years ago, all we really knew about oxytocin is that it’s released when, say, a mother is with her baby. But what we’ve discovered since then, through the work of neuroscientists like Dr. Paul Zak, is that stories trigger the release of oxytocin in much the same way.

Stories make us remember and they make us care. The reason content marketing works isn’t artsy-fartsy. It’s because our brains are programmed for stories.

Isn’t it more accurate to say, “Some content marketing works because it uses storytelling?” A lot of branded content still shuns storytelling in favor of graphs, stats, feature-led product demonstrations, and so on.

Notice I didn’t say our brains are programmed for white papers, PDFs, and one-sheets. Our brains are programmed for stories, but not just any story. You can think of a really boring relative or co-worker who’s droned on at the bar about some story of his fishing trip that you never wanted to hear again. But other times you get captivated by a story. It’s only those really good stories that make our brains light up.

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for more down-funnel content in content marketing, but your case studies don’t have to be a really dry PDF. They can be interesting, creative, and illuminating narratives that tell the story of the struggle your customer faces in a way that’ll resonate with the people you’re trying to sell to.

The story about your product and where your company comes from doesn’t just have to be a list of features. It can talk about the values that you have as a company, why you come to work every day to do what you do, what you believe the future of your industry looks like. These are the important elements of storytelling that can be pervasive throughout all types of content marketing.

So often, when we get stuck just thinking about the business results, we conflate really boring, dry stuff with the stuff that’ll actually work. This white paper; it has graphs, it uses academic language, we sound super serious, it’s authoritative. No, it’s not. It’s boring. No one’s going to want to read it.

There are four elements of storytelling: relatability, novelty, fluency, and tension. Fluency is one of the key things. Most U.S. adults can’t read at a high school level, but most people don’t really like to read stuff that’s at a high school level. Hemingway wrote at fourth grade level. We really like content that is super easy for us to immerse ourselves in and where there’s a really low barrier to entry between us and the story we’re being told.

When a boss insists that the facts should tell the story, how can marketers convince them that stats and graphs do not a story make?

I always challenge marketers, especially the ones we work with, to think: “If you didn’t work here, would you read this?” That’s an important question we should be asking ourselves with anything that we make. Chances are that piece starts out “According to Forrester, 54% of marketers plan to invest more in their content budget this year.” It puts us to sleep.

“I always challenge marketers to think: ‘If you didn't work here, would you read this?’” @JoeLazauskas Share on X

But tell the story of [someone] your audience can relate to, that they can see themselves in, who had the same kind of stubborn boss that you do, who had the same challenges with legal compliance that you do — and tell the story of how she was a hero and overcame them — that story’s going to suck me in much quicker than the story that starts with stats.

Those stats can still come into play as supporting evidence down the line. We’re emotional, [but] we’re also rational people. “OK, this was compelling, this excited me, but is it legit?” That’s where the statistics come in.

So, marketers shouldn’t rely on the reader to interpret abstract information and concepts. Instead, they should tell the story of a similar person so the brain can visualize and experience the information vicariously.

Yeah, you put yourself in their shoes. With any story, relatability is the first and most essential element. We are programmed to respond to stories that we can see ourselves in, automatically. That’s why when we’re teenagers we really like teen movies, whether it was the Molly Ringwald era or the Jason Biggs’ American Pie era. I watched those movies non-stop because, as a teenager, I saw myself in them. We’re constantly drawn to films that are about protagonists who we can see ourselves in.

The same thing is true in any sort of content. When you’re speaking to your audience, you either want to present a main protagonist in the story — it could be a client, a customer, a thought leader, someone who did something super cool for another company that they can see themselves in — or, as the author, you want to speak to them directly. One of the most effective ways is just by targeting the exact people you want to reach in the headline.

This is what BuzzFeed did to really grow their audience. One of the smartest things they did was to have a lot of articles like 21 Things That You Would Only See at Stanford. So, you’re a giant, international publication like BuzzFeed. Why are you targeting just this niche of Stanford students? Well, it’s extremely relatable content. Anyone from Stanford who sees that piece, they’re going to click on it, and it’s all inside jokes about Stanford. Then what are they going to do? They’re going to share that piece with their networks, which is filled with Stanford students, who are then going to click on it and share with their networks, and it goes on and on and on.

This was a really effective tactic for BuzzFeed. Even though Stanford students are only a small percentage of the population, they still number in the hundreds of thousands when you counted all the alumni.

The same thing can work whether you’re targeting small business owners in manufacturing or you’re targeting young physicians in Canada. If you’re creating a piece of content that’s super tailored to their concerns, has inside information, and speaks in a voice they really understand, you’re very likely to connect with them.

Some marketers see the use of neuroscience and behavioral psychology as synonymous with manipulation. What would you say who those who argue against using emotion and persuasive techniques to exploit the brain’s natural wiring and bypass its logic and reason?

This is what we’ve always done. We’ve always appealed to people’s emotions. It’s what we do in every interaction we have as human beings. If I want you to like me, I don’t start a conversation and say, “Hi, I’m Joe. I was born in New Jersey. I live in New York now.” We don’t just rattle off rote information about ourselves. That’s what makes us seem like robots. I might tell you about how, “I just got here. I was actually just in Hawaii. A hurricane was 80 miles from our hotel, and the hotel was telling us that we were going to die.” That tells you something a little bit more about me, my sense of humor, the way I handle situations, in my hopes of building some sort of connection with you.

The reason we tell stories is to build connections with people. I don’t see it as manipulation, but rather the very human thing we do in every conversation we have.