Once upon a time, people stayed longer on websites. Here’s why…

Mum reading bedtime story to child

Once upon a time, there was no Internet. Instead of getting emails every few minutes, office workers used to get a big pile of envelopes landing on their desk every day at the same time each morning when the post arrived. They had no mobile phones, so they had to write to each other to arrange meetings. It was a time when it took longer to do things than it does these days.

Now, even if you were not alive at a time before the invention of the web in 1989, I am pretty sure you already have some images inside your head. My opening lines will have created a picture in your “mind’s eye” of an office with a pile of envelopes and people writing letters or memos. The image in your head will be different to the one inside mine. But you will have a picture.

Compare my opening lines with these words.

Prior to the creation of the Internet, office meetings were arranged using printed communications.

I’ve said the same thing, but it is hardly engaging.

Your website needs to tell stories

The images in the first paragraph of this post were created by your own mind. I didn’t describe anything. You built the pictures for yourself. All I did was tell a little story.

The reason your brain can create the images from the words – and thereby find the material more engaging – is because of the way your parents brought you up. From the time you were born they were telling you stories. You couldn’t understand them, of course, because you didn’t have any language capability. Indeed, you don’t acquire language until you are almost two years old. So, for the first couple of years that you were alive you only had sounds and pictures to go on. You had to engage with the world mostly visually. Your brain is primed for pictures; that’s how we all started thinking.

If you think about how we teach children to learn words, that is also done with sound and pictures. We point to a rubber ball they are playing with and say softly and slowly “b-a-a-a-l-l….ball”. We get the child to look at the ball, and we make the sound of the word. We learnt our language visually. Pictures are therefore fundamental to the brain. So, when your words can be converted easily into images, the person reading those words is much more able to engage with them.

Stories are nothing more than a series of pictures. There’s an “opening scene” such as “once upon a time, in a land far away, it was a dark and cold night”. Then we get to see a character, “But inside her little house on the hill, was Grandma sitting by the fire, doing her sewing”. And so on. In fact, every TV advert, each movie you have watched and many YouTube videos start with a “storyboard”. This is a series of images showing how the story will be told. Many novelists start with all the pictures in mind first, often drawing out their book in rough pictorial form. Storytelling is picture telling.

Neuroscience backs up the need for stories

Various studies by neuroscientists have shown the power of stories. When someone is telling a story multiple parts of their brain are activated. However, research shows that people listening to those stories have identical regions of the brain activated. This doesn’t happen when someone is just talking factually, as in many business meetings. When someone is telling a story the listener’s mind is in sync with the storyteller’s brain.

Other studies show that stories help boost memory. When someone is told information in story form, they remember more of it than the same information presented without being wrapped up in a story. If I asked you to tell me the story of Goldilocks you could do it, even if you haven’t heard it in the past 40 years. If I asked you to tell me what happened in one of your business meetings from a month ago, you’d struggle.

On top of this, psychological research shows we have higher comprehension of the material in story form than the same information presented without being in a story.

Websites and stories

These days sites are so keen to attract attention they have often forgotten the art of the story. Years ago, when attention spans were supposedly higher, websites were often telling stories. Sometimes they weren’t very good, but businesses often provided background stories and showed their route to achievement. Nowadays, many business websites are: “Do you want to buy this? Yes? Click here. No? Go away then”.

The focus on storytelling is fast disappearing. And it is based on a myth. That myth is “lowered attention spans”.

Microsoft conducted a study last year which reportedly found out that the human attention span was lower than that of a goldfish.

But this is misleading. Our attention span is as long as we want it to be. The recent movie about Neil Armstrong, “First Man”, is over two hours long. It is a gripping, exciting film and most people don’t even realise it is as long as it is. That’s because they are fully attentive. Yet, those same people who can pay full attention for more than two hours to something have given up on reading some Tweets half-way through.

Attention is not reduced. What has happened is that the Internet has exposed us to so much boring, trivial, uninteresting, and badly produced material. We look at it for a few seconds and move on. But we do pay attention to stuff we find engaging.

And what do we find engaging? Stories.

Fill your website with stories and people will pay more attention to you. Your bounce rate will go down. People will stay longer on your site. And they’ll remember you. Why wouldn’t you use stories?

4 thoughts on “Once upon a time, people stayed longer on websites. Here’s why…”

  1. It’s intriguing Graham that we think people have less time to read, but actually we choose how we spend our time. If we have an engaging stories on our website which people can recognise or aspire to or be inspired by, then we’re helping them.

    I’m off to write more stories. I’m inspired. Thank you 🙂

  2. This is a good post, Graham. You make important points about people being engaged by stories and that, rather than attention spans being shorter, they are vary more widely depending on the level of interest in the story. In other words, as I understand it, you are saying that there is far more material available to read, therefore we are more demanding of material which engages us in its story because there is plenty of other material to read instead.

    However, I would dispute your point about the time before the Internet. [Actually, I’m not even sure of the relevance of the first paragraph to your main point!] You write: “Once upon a time, there was no Internet. … They had no mobile phones, so they had to write to each other to arrange meetings. It was a time when it took longer to do things than it does these days.”
    Well, “they” (I mean *we*) did have a means to communicate quickly. It was called the telephone! And we used it *a lot*, to arrange many things. However, you’re correct that telephones were not mobile, they were fixed to the wall. So we could only do it in specific places, and had to know where someone was to call them. However, for a long time, we had no answerphone, call waiting or caller identification. So people who complain nowadays about the need to answer emails have no clue! If you didn’t answer the telephone when it rang, the call was lost, there was no message and you didn’t know who had called! *We* had the telephone for several decades before the Internet, and there was fax (facsimile). Also a lot of businesses, especially internationally, used telex. And before that there were telegrams! So there were a variety of ways of sending a message much more quickly than the time to carry a piece of paper to the other end.

    The curious thing to me is that, while we still have telephones (especially mobile ones), nowadays many people treat voice calls more like meetings, to be arranged at specific time. Some people are uncomfortable with it, but I like to just call people I want to talk to … like the good old days!

    • Thanks for your comment, John. I agree with you. All I was doing was writing a story in a couple of lines. As I say in the next paragraph, the stuff about the days before the Internet was merely an example to show how images get implanted in our minds when we talk about things in story format. I was not intending to describe life before the Internet in any depth – as you say there were all kinds of options I didn’t talk about.

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