A lot of time will be spent discussing the art and craft of storytelling on the Croisette this week. But there’s a crucial part of the science behind stories that will get far less attention than it should. Stories aren’t just written and produced in the studio and creative department; they are co-created in the minds of the audience. And for this reason, the mindset of the audience you are telling a story to has a huge influence over how effective that story will be.
Stories as substitute memories
Neuroscentifically speaking, the way that a listener or reader experiences a story mimics the creation of their own most important and influential memories. And this is where storytelling’s unique power comes from. We don’t remember the story as something that happened to somebody else; we recall, imagine and relive it as if it happened to us. We apply it to our own lives.
Great stories achieve this through a potent memory package: a sort of mental slam dunk combining all of the elements that are required to form powerful ‘affective’ memories: they connect characters, facts and events in a way that satisfies our urge to make sense of things; they use emotion to flood the brain with chemicals that strengthen our neural connections; and above all, they convince us that they are worth remembering by aligning with the things that matter most to us – but in a way that we’ve never quite experienced before. (For more on how affective memories form, see this from TNS).
What makes a great story?
It is this alignment with our deeper motivations that is the most crucial factor in any story’s success. If it doesn’t bring to mind something that our brain considers important, we won’t commit to it as listeners; we won’t reshuffle our mental connections to accommodate it, and we won’t release the powerful emotion-derived chemicals that ensure it influences us in the future.
Standard, run-of-the-mill storytellers push the most obvious emotional buttons with reference to children, families and romance; but this approach doesn’t often translate into long-term influence. The brain does the equivalent of a ‘so-what’ shrug and doesn’t bother rewiring our memories around the story – because at the end of the day, it’s heard it all before. If you want your story to hit home, you either need to find a new way to address these themes, or you need to recruit your audience’s deeper and more personal motivations; motivations that are touched upon a lot less regularly.
Time to mine some deeper motivations
This is where mindset and media choice come in. The best brand storytellers (think Dove or Red Bull) don’t gravitate towards traditional broadcast media as their storytelling platform; they use social environments where we are more actively engaged and our personal priorities are that bit closer to the surface. However as audiences are bombarded with more and more stories, the smartest storytellers will start to distinguish between the motivations and personal priorities in play on different social platforms – and seek out those priorities that haven’t been pitched to before.
At LinkedIn, we regularly research the different states of mind that people occupy when using social media – and a clear distinction emerges between the professional and personal mindset. The personal mindset is instinctively nostalgic; it’s focused on friends, families and past experiences– and this can provide fertile ground for storytelling that hits these notes and aligns with these priorities. But these aren’t the only things that motivate us.
The professional mindset brings deeper motivations to the surface – motivations that are less freely expressed, less frequently summoned by media and advertising, and are all the more powerful for being untapped. The professional mindset is purposeful, individual and aspirational. It’s concerned with establishing and maintaining an identity, achieving happiness, fulfilling potential, dealing with setbacks. For a storyteller looking to achieve real impact and standout, that’s a lot of emotional raw material – and it’s mostly untapped raw material.
An invitation to innovative storytelling
Storytellers can afford to start using media platforms more imaginatively to target their audiences because storytelling itself is such an inherently interruptive creative strategy. Great stories (and great storytellers) compel attention whatever the environment; they don’t have to fall in line with expectations. And that’s why audiences in a professional mindset can be open to a far broader range of stories than you might expect.