Did you know certain words and stories can trigger reactions in the brain?
Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen discussed this recently on the Grammar Girl podcast. It’s a good one and I encourage you to click the link and listen, but I also wanted to offer a recap with a few takeaways from me.
As Dr. Hendriksen mentioned, there are elements in our most beloved stories that push our psychological or neurological buttons.
What are they? And how can we use them to connect with our readers?
Here are 4 elements the brain loves in a good story:
1. Good stories engage the senses.
Yes, you’ve heard this before, but have you heard the scientific research behind it? It’s pretty interesting.
Think about texture
A 2012 study found phrases that include descriptions of texture stimulate the brain differently.
Next time you hear a phrase like “slick performance,” “greasy salesman” or “bubbly personality,” know your brain processes it differently. Sensory words trigger not only the language-processing region (as all words do), but the sensory-processing region as well.
It’s like scent by computer.
Words that evoke a sense of smell, like cinnamon or jasmine, activate language- and scent-processing regions of the brain.
When I worked in the fragrance industry, I wished for an app that shot a burst of scent from the computer, so readers could smell the scent while reading about it. What an app that would have been!
Instead, we described scents with words that evoked feelings or connected to identity, like “a confident and feminine scent with notes of orange blossom and ylang-ylang.”
I know what you’re thinking… “That’s fine for the fragrance industry, but I can’t throw words like ‘orange blossom’ into my business writing.” I hear you, but what words can you use to add texture and trigger the senses? Think of analogies and descriptive language.
2. Good stories move us morally.
Stories can move us emotionally, but they can also engage our moral compass. In one study, subjects were asked to transcribe stories of ethical or unethical acts. They were then asked to rate the appeal of various products.
The Macbeth Effect
Surprisingly, those who read unethical stories in the study later rated cleaning products more highly. It’s the “Macbeth Effect.”
Think of Lady Macbeth’s line, “Out, damned spot!” and her fixation with cleaning her hands… or her guilty conscience. Shakespeare knew of our tendency to equate moral purity with physical purity.
So what’s the takeaway here? You can use language to imply a high moral or ethical purity (or semi-purity ;). You can also use your brand’s story to give readers a sense of your moral or business ethics based on the decisions you’ve made or the actions you’ve taken.
3. Good stories connect us to others.
Stories that show us another perspective are powerful. If you read fiction, you’re used to reading other perspectives and understand that others may have different beliefs.
There goes the introvert bookworm persona
Because fiction fans immerse themselves in different worlds and characters, they have a greater sense of empathy. They’re also known to have greater social support and more friends, according to research. This type of connection improves empathy and might give one a greater ability to connect socially in the real world.
Which perspective can you show?
When writing for business, consider the perspective you can show your readers. Do you want to show them you empathize with their problems or needs? How about telling a customer’s story they can relate to? Help readers “walk in your shoes” (or a customer’s) and show them you’ve walked in theirs for a deeper connection.
4. Good stories provide an escape.
Reading a good book helps us escape the real world. But Dr. Hendriksen says it may not be just the escape we like so much, but also the feeling we get when we finish the book. Good books can leave us calmer and more prepared to tackle the real world.
I know I’ve been motivated by books (both fiction and non-fiction) to be more thoughtful or to take action. It’s like the feeling you get after a good conference, when you’re eager to put ideas into action.
You can do the same with a good story. Engage the brain and help your reader take the next step.
I hope this gives you some food for marketing thought.
I can’t lay claim to the material that inspired this post. For that, I thank Dr. Ellen Hendriksen. She podcasts for Grammar Girl and also has her own podcast, the Savvy Psychologist, with some interesting topics. Take a look.