Storytelling – why and how does it work?

Marketing, Science 2017-06-28

In a recent blog post, Gaby told us about eight ways to communicate science better. One of them was “Tell a story”. Indeed, storytelling has become a buzzword for many aspects of marketing, not just for science communication. But how and why does this powerful mechanism work? Neuroscience, and a bit of Shakespeare, can give us the answer!

Storytelling has a long history, with cave paintings in France dating back more than 40,000 years. So it is not surprising that our brains are designed to remember engaging stories.


Memory experts have shown that narratives make things easier to remember and understand1. You may have also noticed that words can trigger memories and emotions. So, consider this:

  • • Just verbally describing an intense situation is enough to activate areas of the brain that deal with emotional responses2 and release a neurochemical called oxytocin3.
  • • Listening to a story activates the brain areas involved in imagining scenarios4.
  • • Imagining a visual scene activates the same areas of the brain as when we actually see the scene5.

Oxytocin is a small peptide made in the hypothalamus of mammalian brains3. It is synthesised when we are shown kindness or trusted, and motivates cooperation with others. Release of this molecule can also be induced when we hear or see a character-driven story. We can consider oxytocin as the neural substrate for the Golden Rule: If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return. In marketing, this means that a well-told story could get a customer to buy from your company, or donate to your cause.

Therefore, a story must sustain attention and contain emotional content to induce the release of oxytocin and make a positive, lasting impression in your listener’s brain.

What makes a story successful?

Keith Quesenberry, marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Michael Coolsen from Shippensburg University conducted a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials to investigate what makes an ad successful6. By doing so, they realised that the secret ingredient wasn’t that secret, but had been used already by good old Shakespeare, in his famous five-act plays. Already in 335 B.C., Aristoteles began to develop dramatic theory, and his theories were expanded by German novelist and play writer Gustav Freytag, into what is known as Freytag’s Pyramid, used by Shakespeare and others.

Freytag's Pyramid

Analysing the Super Bowl commercials, Quesenberry and Coolsen found that ads with more acts (a more complete story with a plot) achieved higher ratings.

When we hear a story, classical language regions in our brain are activated. In addition, a story following Freytag´s Pyramid is also associated with activations in areas beyond the conventional verbal regions7.

Mirror neurons

But why do the stories stick with us? Well, it is because we don’t just listen to them, we see the images and feel the emotions; we actually experience the story as if it is happening to us (and therefore the oxytocin is released). And again, our brain is involved in this ‘experience’ – more specifically the mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons are a class of nerve cells that modulate their activity both when an individual executes a specific motor act and when they observe the same or similar act performed by another individual8. A study by Ramachandra et al. employed psychophysiological methods to elucidate the role of this system in processing vocal emotions9. Skin conductance and heart rate were measured for 25 undergraduate students while they were both listening to emotional vocalisations and thinking (internal production) about them. The results revealed changes in skin conductance response and heart rate during both “listening” and “thinking” conditions. This suggests an active role of the mirror neuron system in processing emotions from stories.

To sum it up, our brain, nerve cells and chemicals are why storytelling is such a powerful tool, that correctly used can work miracles in marketing. And when building your story, turn to Shakespeare to make it memorable!

What do you think about storytelling? Does it work? Tweet me your thoughts at @fraidifrida


  1. Baddeley, A. D. (1999). Essentials of human memory. New York: Psychology Press.
  2. Wallentin, M., Nielsen, A. H., Vuust, P., Dohn, A., Roepstorff, A., & Lund, T. E. (2011). Amygdala and heart rate variability responses from listening to emotionally intense parts of a story. NeuroImage, 58, 963-973.
  3. Zac, P.J. (2015) Cerebrum, February 02
  4. Abdul Sabar, N. Y., Xu, Y., Liu, S., Chow, H., Baxter, M., Carson, J., & Braun, A. R. (2014). Neural correlates and network connectivity underlying narrative production and comprehension: A combined fMRI and PET study. Cortex, 57, 107-127.
  5. Kosslyn, S. M., Alpert, N. M., Thompson, W. L., Maljkovic, V., Weise, S., Chabris, C., Hamilton, S. E., Rauch, S. L., & Buonanno, F. S. (1993). Visual mental imagery activates topographically organized visual cortex: PET investigations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 5, 263-287.
  6. Quesenberry, K.A. & Coolsen, M.K. (2014). What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Super? Five-Act Dramatic Form Affects Consumer Super Bowl Advertising Ratings. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 4, 437-454.
  7. Babajani-Feremi A. (2017) Neural Mechanism Underling Comprehension of Narrative Speech and Its Heritability: Study in a Large Population. Brain Topogr. Feb 18.
  8. Kilner, J.M and Lemon, R.N. (2013) What We Know Currently about Mirror Neurons. Current Biology 23, R1057–R1062
  9. Ramachandra, V., Depalma, N., & Lisiewski, S. (2009). The role of mirror neurons in processing vocal emotions: Evidence for psychophysiological data. International Journal of Neuroscience, 119, 681-690