Why are Stories so Engaging?

Story isn’t just a pleasant byproduct of our work at TruScribe—it’s a central tenet of our design principles of Scribology.  Scribology is a set of principles rooted in science that allow us to create engaging, retainable messages, again and again. 

So what is it that makes story so significant?  Why are stories so engaging? Why do we care so much about it, as content creators and as people in general?

Stories Contain Layers of Information

From a comprehension standpoint, story is our human coding language.  It’s a fast way to gain someone’s attention and hold it. And a story is able to contain more information than the words might on their own.  

In other words, if I tell you the story of Jurassic Park, you’re not just going to get the information relating to the characters’ names and their scaly foes.  No matter how I tell it, you’re going to understand the true message of the story: it should stay impossible to conjure up dinosaurs. They’re bad for our health.

This is why stories are some of the best teaching tools for children.  Children read the code of stories and internalize messages they might not even be able to articulate yet.  

A child might not be able to write three pages on how Cinderella’s stepsisters were classist, narcissistic abusers, but they can certainly learn that it’s wrong to treat people like underlings, and that no matter where we are in life, our luck can change.

Stories are Patterns

Stories are also patterns, and humans are pattern-seeking creatures.  In fact, we’re pattern-completion seekers; when we recognize step one of a familiar pattern, we develop an urge to see steps two and three.  

Read the following, and ask yourself if you feel fulfilled:

“Dominique left her apartment one morning to find the strangest thing she’d ever seen.” 

Chances are, you want more. You’ve been given the beginning to a pattern you recognize, but no middle or end.  

Your brain has been put into story mode. You got a character, a place, and a mystery, but then the pattern failed to resolve.  You didn’t get the middle (what was so strange?), any conflict (how did she react?), or an ending of any kind.  

That’s why stories are so powerful. When you start to tell one, you’ve got an extremely high amount of engagement until it’s over. Even if the listener or viewer isn’t bowled over by your story, part of their brain insists that they hear the whole thing.

Stories Transport Us

And that idea of being put into story mode isn’t just a turn of phrase. Social scientists call the involvement we feel with story “transportation”.  New ideas, and even ideas that conflict with our experiences and knowledge, are more acceptable to a brain that’s been transported into a narrative.

This is part of what’s meant by the willing suspension of disbelief, a phrase that explains why we don’t turn off Star Wars for being nonsensical when characters lift objects with an invisible Force.  Once we’ve picked up the pattern of a story, we’re transported into its world. We then tend to grant more allowance for unrealistic or unusual plot points. This is especially true for stories we’re enjoying.

Back in the world of non-fiction, transporting an audience into a story can allow for the willing suspension of judgment.  If you are giving a story to a hundred savvy investors, for example, and your visual aid experiences a critical failure, your effectiveness will likely take a hit.

If you’ve got your audience partway through a compelling story, however, they might very well ignore the technical difficulties, as long as they can still hear you telling the story.  The same holds true of, say, a spelling error on a slide. Normally, it could signal the end of your credibility, but wow them with a story, and you might get lucky.

Christopher Booker argues all stories follow seven basic types.  While there’s some value in noting narrative similarities, and it’s no small feat that Booker worked thirty-four years to develop his beliefs, I’d argue that his theory isn’t entirely true.  More relevantly, though, I’d argue it doesn’t really matter.

We’re pattern-seeking, pattern-desiring beings.

Do we only know of seven patterns?

Can we really fit every tale we tell into them?

I doubt it, but I think what actually matters is the reason behind, and the effectiveness of, those stories.  

Humans Need Stories

The earlier fragment of a story, Dominique’s almost-encounter with something strange, shows what the human proclivity for story really looks like.  It’s not a need to categorize, and it’s not a need to find oneself in the story: it’s a desire to be a part of an enjoyable, biologically-driven need to find and fulfill a pattern and decode messages.

Consider for a minute if I was a door-to-door salesperson, and you were listening to my sales pitch. If I started and terminated Dominique’s story as part of my pitch, you’d almost definitely want me to finish it—even knowing it was part of my pitch.  

All other things being equal, you’d likely hear me out (something that most of us wouldn’t even consider when it comes to strangers on our doorstep).  That’s because even a story told in an unusual context draws engagement and connection.

So, when you think of your next marketing initiative, product rollout, advertisement, or other communication, think of including a story.  Transport your listener or viewer to the story world, and capitalize on their interest.  Use our human coding language, and send a message that truly engages and resonates.

TruScribe visualizes words, ideas, and stories to change how people see, think, and act. If you have a project in mind or want to learn more, get in touch.