There’s a bit of science behind our reactions to certain stories or words. No surprise there, but how and why we react is pretty interesting. And the thing is… we can use these reactions to connect with our readers.
Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen broke this down on the Grammar Girl podcast. (Good podcast, by the way.) Here’s a recap and my takeaways.
There are 4 elements the brain loves in a good story:
Our most beloved stories push our psychological buttons.
1. Good stories engage the senses.
Yes, you’ve heard this before, but here’s a look at how…
Think about texture
Words describing textures stimulate the brain differently.
When you hear a phrase like “slick performance,” “greasy salesman” or “bubbly personality,” 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.
When I worked in the fragrance industry, I wished we could send a spray of scent by computer. Imagine visiting a website and smelling a fragrance. Maybe someday.
But the next best thing is word choice. Really.
Words that evoke a sense of smell, like cinnamon, jasmine or pumpkin spice, activate language- and scent-processing regions of the brain.
I might describe a fragrance as “a confident and feminine scent with notes of orange blossom and cinnamon,” to evoke those scents, for example.
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? What will add texture and trigger the senses? Think of analogies and descriptive language, like “smooth connection,” “crisp response,” etc.
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 rated cleaning products more highly. It’s the “Macbeth Effect.”
Think of Lady Macbeth’s line, “Out, damned spot!” and her guilty conscience. Shakespeare knew of our tendency to align 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 a reader 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 describing 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. But Dr. Hendriksen says it may not be just the escape we like so much. It can also be 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 (fiction and non-fiction) to be more thoughtful or to take action. It’s the feeling you get after a good conference, when you’re motivated and 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.