What is a Story?
An Evolutionary Feature
For millennia, humans have passed stories down the generations as a way to transmit information in a manner that is familiar to how we collectively experience life. Along the way, we’ve developed new technologies to enhance the detail of messages and explore story environments more effectively (like cinema, or video games). From mythologies to fables, history books to accounting sheets, stories can tell themselves in an infinite number of ways, and civilizations have transformed based on stories we tell.
A Composition of Human-ness
There are several common storytelling components that appear to be recycled time and again in stories. The relatability of human-ness and our emotional challenges, in particular, help create tension which contributes to audience retention. Done correctly, this attention can remain until the audience receives the message of the story.
But even in our world full of stimulation and distraction, how can stories be so powerful as to keep our attention for extended periods of time? After all, isn’t it… not real?
The Human Brain
On its most fundamental level, good storytelling tricks the brain into thinking it’s someone and somewhere it’s not. Storytelling can stimulate the release of perspective-changing neurotransmitters in our brain (most notably dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and cortisol) and can change our entire mood at the drop of a dime. It can hook us, causing us to ignore our immediate surroundings, or stick in our brain for long periods of time. It can affect our dreams and it most definitely affects our imagination.
Riding the wave of a well-formulated story arc, these changes in brain chemistry all but hijack the neocortex and put an audience into new modes of perception. These new modes can then trigger behavioral changes, produce emotion, or even inspire action. From empathy to anger, trust to stress, the spectrum of audience reaction spans far in the world of a story.
When a message is in story form, captivating the brain by conveying human experience, the message is the most optimally understood by others. In a world historically concentrated on the sharing of information—religion, wars, origin stories—storytelling is arguably how we best receive messages. Perhaps it’s also why our civilization has always been so obsessed with it: we human beings love information.
Whereas once upon a time, stories focused predominantly on sharing history, anecdotes, love, jokes, pain, suffering, and lessons from the gods, things have taken a turn in the past half-century or so. Our society has begun to witness storytelling used as a tool to convince others into believing, purchasing, or consuming things that may otherwise not be attractive.
A Multitude of Formats
Today, an important medium for the sharing of stories is online video. Advertisements, promotions, documentaries, VLOGs, the news, Twitch streamers—they all tell stories in their own way, at their own scale, and with their own flare. A good online video is always tapping into the power of storytelling somehow because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be engaging its audience—and that’s the whole point of online content: to engage and sway an audience into following its call-to-action, which could be anything from “click subscribe!” to “buy this!”
Streamlining the Process
Why video? Because it fast-forwards the storytelling process without skipping any vital storytelling components. It shows the world of the story to its audience without needing to describe the sounds, sights and sensations. In cultural or memetic contexts, visual storytelling enables the creation of a relationship between audience and character with minimal set-up. (As an example, think of how Hollywood often sticks Ben Stiller in the same romantic comedy role. It’s easy, familiar, pleasant, and thus requires less energy in the brain to develop an onscreen relationship with him—even if you don’t even know him.)
There is no story without a character. Archetypally speaking, characters are relatable to the audience because of their human-ness. Even if they’re talking animals, or animated monsters, they are personified to reflect human qualities that enable us to feel empathy for them.
As humans, we are all vulnerable to life and circumstance. Be it love, pain, romance, betrayal, loss, excitement, or just plain disappointment when something doesn’t pan out the way we want, we all experience human-ness uniquely through a shared lens. So in the context of a story, when we allow ourselves to perceive the experience of another (like a character onscreen), we generally relate so naturally that we normally don’t even realize it happening. Our brain begins to flood dopamine and oxytocin, creating strong feelings of empathy.
For example, maybe you’ve watched a movie and found yourself noticeably upset when the protagonist’s best friend died, or you burst into tears when the two main characters finally profess their love for one another. The human experience is so easily relatable that we often don’t even recognize relationships forming between ourselves and characters onscreen. Storytelling consumes us thanks to the reality of characters.
Containing the Human Experience
Context for Relatability
Without human experience to connect us to characters, the potential of a story and its message is easily lost. The most simple way to convey the human experience is by introducing vulnerability. Human-ness is easily recognized when a character is subject to emotional vulnerabilities, such as joy or pain. But that vulnerability must have context. The environment, or container, of a story must be comfortable to its audience.
The character will be observed living a standard life inside that container. Everything is fine, until a disruption in the character’s routine creates a challenge. (In this document, we call that disruption a FORCE, which can be a product, service, event, YouTube channel, etc.) This challenge inevitably leads to a RESULT, which is generally assumed to be a positive one.
It is important that the context & setting of a story is clear, lest the viewer be confused by what they see and hear onscreen. This environment subtly communicates its parameters so that the “world” or “reality” in which the story takes place is understood by the audience. The primary objective of storytelling is to create a comfortable and compelling container into which we can bring our audience to share a message.
People: Branding Personality
Video is a fantastic means for building relationships between people online because the human brain can hardly distinguish between a real person talking to you and a person onscreen talking at you. Over time we can develop relationships with people we watch online, even if they have no idea about us on the other side!
In 2020, some of the most effective content online is video, but not simply because of the sensory stimulation offered by its sights and sounds—it’s the people! Those characters onscreen somehow become friends of ours. We even begin to place our confidence in them.
For marketing purposes, these same characters become valuable assets as sources of trust to audiences. Brands pay influencers to advertise their projects just like companies show off their services in the form of selfie videos because it imitates a human-to-human, direct form of communication. It feels authentic.
The effect of this appearance of authenticity, whether genuine or not, comes in addition to the storytelling brain chemistry we touched on earlier. Between sensory stimulation and changes in brain chemistry, compelling plots and human vulnerability, storytelling is like a kitchen full of fresh ingredients and recipes that can deliver any message as a delicious dish to its audience when prepared correctly. And human touch is the salt and pepper.
When it comes to sharing a story, human personality is as important as the message. And that’s why, in 2020, we have it so easy with our smartphones and internet connectivity.