In the first of three blogs, Craig Melcher, our Digital Content Manager, opens the book on the most enduring and powerful form of digital content.
‘Storytelling’ was once an innocent word, belonging to the bedtime ritual between parents and children or legend-sharing rituals within indigenous cultures. Then around five years ago the marketing world got its mitts on it, turned it into an ‘essential engagement tool’, and it became the topic of every agency blog, brand summit and industry podcast.
But rather than do its run as a marketing trend and fodder for buzzword bingo, storytelling is now flourishing through digital channels. Stories have become the online content people gravitate to, share and talk about – and the volume, quality and variety have mushroomed.
Aside from how successfully the most dominant modern story forms – films and books – perform online, the telling of stories has found other, more innovative forms. Major news websites have helped lead the way, using HTML5 and other web innovations to combine text, video, photography, graphics and audio into rich, interactive stories like the Guardian’s Firestorm, SBS’s The Other 9/11 and Baptism by Fire from the New York Times.
For our ears, on the back of last year’s record success of Serial (and, long before that, its progenitor This American Life), documentary and interview-style podcast series like Radiolab, Outlook, SBS True Stories, Love + Radio, Porchlight and StoryCorps have built huge audiences. Live event podcasts like Risk! and The Moth are getting big download numbers by featuring everything from story slams to people sharing personal tales onstage.
For our eyes, the web’s visual strengths make it a photographer’s playground, and professionals and amateurs alike are publishing potent photo essays, not only on Instagram but also platforms like Exposure.
For lovers of written stories, the movement has led to sites such as Longform, Wattpad, Medium and dozens more, as well as waves of online learning and collaboration options like Figment, LitLift, The Story Emporium and truckloads more.
The arc and the oxytocin
What caused all this? It turns out we humans have a thing for stories. They are how we connect to each other, generate empathy for people we don’t know, and are moved to do something for them. We’re hard-wired to tell and listen to stories.
We can explain why this happens through some basic science and basic story structure. At its most stripped-down*, the arc of a story has three stages:
1. Exposition – when a main character is introduced along with details like setting, time, situation and, importantly, what that character wants.
2. Crisis – when something happens to the character that gets in the way of what they want.
3. Resolution – when the enemy is beaten, the disaster averted, the solution found, or the first kiss finally happens.
* In books and courses by the thousands, the universal dramatic structure has been pursued, dissected, analysed, prescribed and over-complicated. But if you want one good read that truly explains the ‘why’ of humankind’s need for stories, I recommend John Yorke’s Into the Woods.
Now the science bit (your brain on stories). We all have four main ‘happy chemicals’, or hormones that act as neurotransmitters in our brains:
- Dopamine – to motivate us. Released when you realise you have a 5pm deadline on the report you thought was due next week.
- Seratonin – to make us feel valued. Released when someone compliments you on that stylish belt.
- Oxytocin – the all-powerful social bonding chemical. Between mum and baby, it facilitates childbirth and promotes breastfeeding. Between two partners, it triggers feelings from warm and fuzzy to sexual. Between two strangers, it fosters generosity.
- Endorphins – the euphoria chemical. Released via all sorts of triggers: through laughter, as response to pain and stress (the athlete’s high), favourite aromas (hello, bacon), and of course chocolate – amongst many others.
So where does the brain science meet the story arc?
1. Exposition: When we’re introduced to a main character, we connect with them to at least a small degree – and our brain releases oxytocin. The more we connect or identify with them – maybe they remind you of someone close, or their situation is one you’ve experienced, or they’re from your town – the more we go on their journey with them, and the more oxytocin we produce.
2. Crisis: As something bad happens to our character, our oxytocin levels increase. And the more we relate to them, the greater the oxytocin surge.
3. Resolution: The moment our character saves the planet and gets the boy, or just finds health and happiness, our oxytocin levels drop and our brain produces endorphins.
That’s why we’re all story junkies. And it’s why civilisations told stories before they could print. They’re the most effective vehicle of communication we have because of their power to move and connect us. Stories are how we entertain, educate and inspire. The yarns we tell in pubs, office kitchens and taxi cabs prove that storytelling is the original form of social media.
‘You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.’
- Margaret Atwood
And when you combine the enduring power of the story with the nearly unlimited ability of web channels to reach people, build niche audiences and let them spread content, you get the boom in storytelling explained above, times a thousand.
What does this mean for Macmillan?
Consider our organisational ambition: To reach and improve the lives of everyone living with cancer, and inspire millions of others to do the same. So how do we inspire them? What’s the mechanism that moves them to seek help and information when they’re affected by cancer, or to give us their money, time and other support? Chances are, it will be someone’s story that plays a key role, motivating them to action.
We’re in an enviable position in that we represent the human side of cancer. (As sometimes said, we are the care, not the cure.) The stories of the people we help and the people who help us are the most vivid, compelling and authentic ways we can communicate to our audiences. A principle of our brand is ‘For and by real people’, meaning we allow them to tell their stories and, in doing so, we’re able to express what we do, the need for our services and the impact we can make.
Across our website, we use stories to give weight to a message and lend personal voices to information. On our story hub you’ll find a wide range of stories covering various challenges people have faced along their cancer journeys. Many of these were produced as part of Macmillan’s ongoing Not Alone brand campaign. We’re always adding more stories and finding more places to use them, working with content-producing teams to plan the most effective story content.
A story for another day
In our next instalment on storytelling, we’ll take a closer look at how Macmillan and other charities are telling personal stories and building broader narratives, and the techniques, content and measurement needed to do it well.
The Science of Generosity (Paul Zak), Psychology Today
The Three-Act Structure, The Elements of Cinema