The Science of Storytelling and How to Use It in Marketing

by George Mathew

Last updated on August 28th, 2017

During the Civil War, on May 12, 1863, a young Martha stood on her front porch as a battle raged nearby. A bullet passed through the scrotum of a soldier, travelled at least 100 feet more, then hit the reproductive tract of Martha, who nine months later gave birth to a baby boy.

Incredible isn’t it? Almost impossible.

Well, it is. It never happened. I even made the name up. The story has been with me for years. When I first heard it I thought it was true.

The science of storytelling

I apologize for beginning with something completely off-track, but I didn’t want to lose you right off the bat. Your attention span is only 5 seconds long, after all. But what’s more depressing is that even if I held you for 5 seconds, you wouldn’t read more than 20% of the text in this article.

If you are trying to reach people and searching for a solution to these problems, you have come to the right place.

Story telling has been around since man began walking the earth. It’s our favorite pastime, which is probably why we invest hours to movies. We love living the life of a superhero for 3 whole hours; we cry and laugh at the agonies and surprises of make-believe worlds.

Indeed, most people believe that life is a grand story, unfolding a chapter at a time. Even Kathryn Aragon, editor of The Daily Egg, confirms it. For a different blog post, I asked Kathryn how she got started and she said that her background in fiction helps her in business writing.

When I worked at ConversionXL, Editor Tommy Walker would always ask me to connect the elements together to bring out a story. Why? Every marketer worth his mettle knows that stories count when you’re marketing online.

Stories affect us in more ways than we can imagine. And as marketers, we need to hone our storytelling skills to deliver our message in this crowded world.

It can help us make an instant, long lasting, emotional connection and elevate our customers from mere numbers to real people.

Do stories increase the perceived value of objects?

Yes, they do.

Let me share the Significant Objects Project. It’s a story of two guys who sold nearly worthless items, purchased for just a few dollars each, for thousands on eBay. Most of the objects sold for nearly 2700 times their original value.

This is how it they did it:

  1. After the purchase was made from thrift stores and garage sales, each participating writer was paired with an object.
  2. The writer then spun a fictional story about the object. Note that the aim of the project was not to give an impression that the stories were true. The stories appeared with the author’s byline and most people realized that it was a work of fiction.
  3. The objects were then listed on eBay, but instead of a description, there were these colorful stories about them.

For example, one of the items listed, called the Russian figure, had a story about the cobbler turned saint, Saint Vralkomir, and an incident (fictional) in which his grandmother tells him about effigies of St. Vralkomir coming to life on moonless winters.

russian toy

Bought for $3, the Russian figure went for $193.50.

The buyers knew the stories were fictional, but that didn’t stop them from bidding.

What do stories actually do to the mind?

In a study conducted by the Emory Institute in Atlanta, researchers asked 21 students (12 females) to come for a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan (fMRI’s). The first 5 days were spent taking scans of the initial brain structure and, over the next 9 days, participants were asked to read the novel Pompeii.

When scans were taken over the remaining 5 days, they revealed increased connectivity in the left temporal cortex (the area associated with language). It also suggested that just thinking about an action triggers the very same areas that are active while performing the action.

Researchers have found that stories induce physical changes to the brain, so much so that Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study, said,

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.”

Stories are far more engaging than cold hard data. When reading facts and figures, only the area related to language (also called the Broca’s area) lights up, but the mention of words like ice cream activates olfactory areas (regions associated with smell) as well.

In an experiment, researchers in Spain asked participants to read neutral words that had no association with smells along with words that were strongly associated with smells, say, for example, cinnamon. Mapping the brains by a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine, researchers were surprised to see that words like “coffee,” “cinnamon,” and “beer” lit up the olfactory areas in the respondents’ brains.

Story telling is powerful.

How does your mind figure out what’s important?

For that, we need to understand how the brain stores things.

It’s similar to the way a computer stores data. Compare it to copying a song to a CD. First, the song needs to be encoded, i.e., converted into a form that machines understand—bits and bytes. Next, it needs to be stored and sent to its memory, and finally, when the time comes, played out as a song or retrieved.

I will repeat it once again:

  1. Encoding or Gaining Attention
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval

Unlike a CD, which encodes everything we send across, the human brain encodes the stuff it finds interesting.

And we have a problem, Houston.

The human body sends around 11 million bits of data to the brain every second. If you find conversions are somewhat low on that landing page of yours, those 11 million bits are to be blamed.

Or are they?

The basic elements of design are universal. What matters is if you can combine them to deliver a killer mix that grabs attention.

Gaining Attention

  1. White space:

It’s nothing…really.


Simply put, white space is the empty space surrounding an object. But when done right, it can bring class and luxury to the very picture. It’s not wasted space. What gives white space a very special place in design is that it leads the eye of the customer unerringly to where we want it to go.

What does the site above sell? I don’t know German at all, but I bet it’s bicycles.

White space sets the tone. It gives breathing space to calls to action (CTA’s). It improves legibility and makes the text much easier to scan.

  1. Rich imagery, color and contrast:

Colors can help the CTA stand out. The color orange is said to produce warm, fuzzy feelings inside. Talking about contrast, this is what I found on Samsung.

rich imagery

eBay seems to be doing pretty well when it comes to rich imagery.

rich imagery

Everything’s perfect with this big, bold, orange CTA with plenty of whitespace thrown around on the CrazyEgg pop-up.

crazyegg example

  1. Moving backgrounds:

They aren’t very popular but sure as hell grab attention. PayPal has one example of a moving background.

paypal moving

  1. Typography

The reason typography is often sent to the back burner is because it’s so subtle. Most times, rich imagery and a honey-dripping copy steal the credit. But often it’s these small things that make a difference.

Typography sets the tone subliminally. It doesn’t declare its presence, much as salt adds flavor. But typography can set a distinctive tone and communicate the brand in a way that other elements never can.

A study by Michael Martin in Smashing Magazine reveals that the top 50 brands are moving away from traditional fonts like Ariel and Georgia. From 2009 to 2013, 50 major websites reversed their thinking about serif and sans-serif fonts. While sans-serif dominated body copy up to 2009, the opposite is true now.

Designers today are openly experimenting with combinations of different typefaces and even three to four of them on a single webpage to add diversity and typographic color to the mix.

You will find this resource on mixing typefaces to be beautiful.

Having piqued people’s attention with design, movement and typography, let’s move on to making some memories golden.


In this post, Christina Gillick talks about how unforgettable the Volvo Trucks video ad called “The Epic Split” is. It’s the most-watched automotive commercial on YouTube, with 74,880,532 views last time I checked.

What makes it eye-candy is that such a thing had never been done before.

It makes an instant connection between the brand, Volvo’s high-precision steering, and the split, which was executed without tearing Jean-Claude Van Damme apart.

It built a bond between the viewers and the brand in such a way that they wanted to see the video again and again, talk about it and share it.

It’s good news to marketers because a Nielsen study confirms that ninety-two percent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, word-of-mouth recommendations, above all other forms of advertising.

Even though negative emotion enhances memory more than positive emotion, I’d suggest not going that route.

In other words, it’s tantamount to saying that if we put out stuff that can’t be easily forgotten then we gain the trust of customers.

That’s good news. But it’s not enough that you bring those memories out of cold storage; they need to come out at the right time.


Have you ever noticed that adverts on the television are repeated so often, we’d rather switch off the set than watch them one more time?

Are these brands wasting money? Isn’t once or twice enough to air their annoying commercials?

The answer is a resounding “No.”

They have known it all along. Unless you’re sick of watching those adverts, you won’t remember the product when you’re considering a purchase.

You may not be actively pursuing hand-picked coffee beans baked in the Southern sun with the aroma of the earth nested in their core.

Why? Because, you have coffee powder sitting right there on the shelf.

But a month later, when you’re standing at the grocery’s coffee aisle considering your options,  the coffee company wants you to be seeking their beans. By showing you their commercial over and over again, they ensure you remember the name of the company that packs and sells them.

It’s similar when marketing online. One banner ad is not going to sell.

Bottom line, it’s easier to reach your online audience with your product if you hit them many, many times.

  1. Convert them into active subscribers: People have been shouting about it from the rooftops for ages. If you haven’t started yet, start now. Build a list. Once you have them in your kitty, the only thing you need to change is the copy, and you can promote the bluetooth speakers that work on candlelight a 100 different times.
  2. Retargeting ads, behavioral advertising: Behavioral advertising is when the advertising networks segment out their audience based on their browsing habits to show them the most relevant adverts. Retargeting is when you show banner ads on other sites, promoting your site to people who have visited your site. . Both retargeting and behavioral advertising have their fallacies, though. I have covered it in much depth here.
  3. Facebook custom audiences: This option on Facebook advertising lets you input the user IDs of the people you want to target on Facebook.  There’s a nifty little tool called the FB lead chef that allows me to do it easily. Let’s say I am interested in people who are interested in natural remedies, survival tips, natural living, you get the drift. I key those words into the tool and, voila! I have a list of fan pages or groups revolving around that keyword.

Next thing I know, all those member id’s are exported into Facebook’s advertising page or I can download the list of members who are the most engaged.

george excel

Since they are already exposed to natural living and similar ideas, they are the most targeted bunch I can find on Facebook.

All I need to do is make them remember that they like all natural living (Retrieval)

What do you think?

As mentioned above, the science of storytelling involves three things:

  1. Encoding or Gaining Attention
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval

Get people’s attention at the start of your story. Tell it often enough (possibly in different formats or styles) so it gets ingrained in people’s memories. Then activate their memories when it’s time to buy.

I would love to hear your opinions on this. Has story telling worked for you? Do you actively use it when marketing?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Read other Crazy Egg articles by George Mathew.



Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

George Mathew

George has marketed million dollar startups with his skills and has contributed to ace Conversion Optimization blogs like ConversionXL. You can hire him for your content marketing needs.


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  1. Aqif says:
    November 18, 2014 at 6:15 am

    I love the way you extracted all the scientific research to convince us (the readers) to believe that story matters.

    Your first paragraph is good too (even though you’ve made that up). I’m into it.

    Good post. Keep it up.

    • George Mathew says:
      December 8, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Aqif, glad to hear that you love the post. Thanks for the compliment

  2. Sweeney says:
    November 13, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Excellent article.

    Honestly one of my favorites from y’all. Loved the science in the beginning and examples after.

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      November 13, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      Thanks, Sweeney. George does a great job of digging out the science behind his topics.

      • George Mathew says:
        November 13, 2014 at 12:36 pm

        thanks Kathryn, appreciate that.

    • Neil Patel says:
      November 13, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      Sweeney, glad you liked it. We’ll make sure we keep providing data driven posts.

  3. Jim Jones says:
    November 12, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    Um.. I know stroy telling is a buzz word, but this Header is simply “bait and switch.”
    Nothing in here about Story (unless you redefine it to mean “everything in marketing is story”…
    Kind of silly turn-off

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      November 13, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Sorry to disappoint, Jim. There was no intention to mislead anyone. Maybe there’s a degree to which story is the underlying foundation to everything else.

  4. Kostas Chiotis says:
    November 12, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Any good marketer should be able to use storytelling since stories help trigger emotions and most people buy something when they feel connected and see emotionally the outcome of their purchase, thanks for sharing this really detailed post…

    • Neil Patel says:
      November 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm

      Kostas, great point. I think the psychology of storytelling is something we should all keep in mind when writing posts.

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