The Chemicals Between Us

Brand building and forming connections through the art of storytelling

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Some of my very best memories from when I was a kid involve my dad lying in bed with me and reading me stories.

My dad was fascinated with Scandinavia and Nordic lore (a fascination which I inherited from him), and he would regale 7-year-old Charl with Icelandic epics and Swedish sagas.

Photo by Mallory Johndrow on Unsplash

Through the words of these anonymous narrators and my dad’s incredible talent for storytelling, I was transported to the vast, icy plains of ancient Scandinavia. I faced off with marauding Vikings, vicious bears and mythical beasts. I made thousand mile treks across frozen, unforgiving landscapes to do battle with cruel and bloodthirsty kings.

My childhood wasn’t always happy, mostly because my parents were constantly fighting. But these night-time escapes with my dad made everything okay; they provided a different reality where the good guy always won despite the odds being against him.

Today, storytelling is an essential component of brand building and content marketers are tapping into people’s inborn love for a good narrative.

While it was initially thought that stories elicited a purely emotional response, recent studies have revealed that stories affect us on a chemical level as well.

According to an article published in the Harvard Business Review, our brains release cortisol and oxytocin in response to certain kinds of narratives, specifically those that are character-driven and packed with emotional content.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Dubbed the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin promotes bonding between people and has been shown to facilitate trust and acceptance. In fact, oxytocin is often administered to women during childbirth to help with bonding as well as milk production.

This explains why I felt closest to my dad during story time, and why I felt safe even when things at home weren’t great. I was tripping balls on pure, uncut narrative goodness!

Cortisol, on the other hand, is the hormone that our brains release when we experience stress, and promotes focus and attention (because when you’re about to step on a pissed off rattle snake, you best focus on what the hell you’re doing!).

Good storytelling, therefore, offsets the focusing, attention-grabbing effect of the cortisol with the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with oxytocin.

So how does storytelling fit into the content marketing/business communication mix?

It’s actually quite simple: stories – or, at least, certain kinds of stories – enable us to connect with each other. The release of oxytocin makes us more empathetic, more receptive to messages and more likely to cooperate with others.

You don’t have to be a neurobiologist to understand how these emotional responses can be tapped to convince your audience to respond to your content, and Claremont Graduate University professor Paul J. Zak even advises keynote speakers to start their presentations with a good narrative to grab their audience’s attention via the aforementioned chemical responses.

Make your product or brand the hero

There’s a good reason why superhero movies consistently dominate at the box office. The struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, the Dionysian and the Apollonian is as old as time, and we are neurologically programmed to root for the good guy (even if the villains are often way cooler).

Photo by ErikaWittlieb

By positioning your product or brand as the hero that saves the day, you are much more likely to elicit a positive emotional response – that may lead to purchasing behavior – from your audience.

Alternatively, craft a scenario in which the prospective client becomes the hero and solves a problem.

Create tension and then solve it

If you paid attention during high school English class, you’ll remember that every story contains a tension or crisis that must lead to resolution.

Use real people in your advertising, give them names and personalities and highlight their pain points.

By creating a compelling, character-driven and emotion-heavy narrative with a relatable stress point (it doesn’t need to be relatable to the entire population, only to your target audience), you’ll grab your audience’s attention with a cortisol-injection.

Then, once you have their attention, you can resolve the tension (let the good guy win) – cue the touchy feely hormone.

Tell your brand’s story in a compelling way

Every brand has a story, including a hero and/or heroine (for example the founder, CEO or a product specialist or sales guru) a setting (another prerequisite for a story) and a narrative arc. Take this one that I wrote for leading gate automation brand Centurion Systems, for example.

Emphasize the people that have made, and continue to make, your organization great. Promote success stories, punt customer testimonials and trace the brand’s road to glory.

More and more businesses are realizing the value of compelling storytelling as an integral part of the brand communications and marketing mix. Storytelling is engrained in our DNA and has been around as a form of entertainment and as a means of passing along ideas, knowledge and traditions since the dawn of humankind. The fact that stories are able to connect people and resonate with us not only on an emotional level, but on a biochemical level, is rock solid proof of the power of a strong narrative.

Originally published at

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