Once upon a time, there was a curly-haired student who sat up late at night with his mates coming up with a way of rating all the girls on campus. There was much laughter as the gang of youths tried to find a way of giving all the girls at university some kind of rating. Before long, they had come up with a way of doing this electronically and managed to put the system up on the university’s servers so that more students could join in the fun.
But it wasn’t long before the university authorities found out and took the system down because it was so popular it was swamping the official computer services. The inventor, Mark, was forced to make a public apology by the university. Even so, he was undeterred by the authorities who tried to prevent him from running his service. And when two other students took him to court to sue him because they claimed his idea was actually their invention, Mark didn’t blink. He continued with determination and eventually brought the world the biggest and most popular website of all time – Facebook.
The story of Mark Zuckerberg is so powerful it has even been made into a Hollywood movie. It has all four elements of a good story – a hero, an anti-hero, conflict and a struggle to succeed.
We are hooked by stories. After all, this article could have simply started with the phrase “Facebook was invented by Mark Zuckerberg”. Whilst true, it is much less interesting than his battle against the university authorities at Harvard and his legal fight with the Winklevoss twins, who claimed they were part inventors of the site.
Stories are powerful for several reasons. Religions use stories to get across their messages and terror organisations use stories to ensure compliance of their supporters. Politicians use stories to garner support and resulting votes. And sales people use stories to help persuade their potential customers.
So why are stories so ubiquitous? Part of the reason is their format. They usually start with a bit of scene setting and introducing the key characters. Then we are given a problem, which the hero solves after some conflict with the anti-heroes. No matter which story you look at, they all follow this typical pattern.
And that’s a form our brain is used to. Parents tell babies stories; children learn the pattern and rhythm of stories before they can even read themselves. It means we have a “schema” for stories so when another one comes along we can instantly recognise it and understand it. That’s much easier for us to do than try to understand a series of facts with no real structure or in a form we have never previously encountered.
But there are other reasons why stories are powerful. They engage our senses; stories provide visual stimulation and can even evoke memory of smells and sounds. As a result, stories involve more of your brain than a simple collection of factual content.
In addition to all this, stories stimulate our desire for certainty. Our brains are always seeking certainty to enable us to operate in the world around us. Stories provide us with that feeling of being sure because we know that all stories have an outcome and that the hero always wins.
A good example of the use of stories can be found in a performance improvement self-coaching system for people who sell. Bryan McCrae, Sales Psychologist and the inventor of the system says: ‘We know that stories are very powerful,in many different ways, for creating effective learning and development. So we designed and created three characters, Ben, Kate and John, who feature in the Sales-Motivations program. Ben is a young Entrepreneur who has started up an industrial design company but is puzzled that there isn’t a queue of customers waiting to buy his great designs, Kate is new to telesales and despite being bright and bubbly face to face, is failing miserably at her new role. John is a professional sales person who used to be very successful, might be having a mid-life crisis, has a new much younger boss and feels that he might just be over the hill. We hired professional directors, producers and actors for this and in effect created a mini-series for each character, where we see them face up to their challenges and overcome them using the psychological tools and techniques that Sales-Motivations provides. Each character has a very distinct personality and we find that most of our users really seem to ‘befriend’ one character, which makes the program very engaging and effective’.
There are several reasons why stories work, but ultimately it comes down to familiarity with the narrative format and the comfort that brings. It means that if your sales messages are wrapped up in story form, you stand a much greater chance of them being listened to and understood.