Storytelling and Context Pt. 2 — Neuroscience and Context

This is Part Two of a talk given at D&AD Festival on 22 May 2019. Visit here for part one and here for part three.

There are lots of theories about stories. I’m using the idea here that a story attracts your attention, gains your trust, and then delivers a pay-off in the end. Another way to look at this is:

There are three hormones that are associated with those three feelings. I’ll let you know what that are, after this story.

I don’t know about you, but I vividly remember watching this in my living room, at 11 years old, and feeling all kinds of feelings that I wasn’t familiar with. I knew Levis were the best jeans though.

That’s because it contains all of the elements of a good story, and subsequently triggers an avalanche of hormones to run through your body.

Attention & Cortisol

We only have a certain amount of attention that we can designate at any given time. This the reason you can’t listen to song lyrics and write at the same time, or have a conversation while listening to someone else.

When we experience stress, we are drawn to a situation, and we naturally give it our attention. That’s hired-wired into our bodies, thanks to the release of the hormone Cortisol.

Advertising, as we well know, is committed to the art of gaining, and retaining attention. And I believe that’s a responsibility of the creative execution, as much as the media.

So this is the reason certain environmental contexts are brilliant for advertising: cinema is immersive, it’s a perfect context for watching film. In the living room context, however, we’re primed for distractions.

But good stories command attention by bringing the viewer into a stressful or mysterious situation. We must be gripped by a character being in jeopardy, or a question remaining unanswered.

In Levi’s Creek, we’re intrigued immediately. The production feels surprising to us: it’s black and white, the cinematography is spectacular, we’re out of our comfort zone. Then we’re stressed as the girls go off, what awaits them? These questions cause the release of Cortisol, and force us to buy into the story.

That ad worked brilliantly on TV, but would it have the same effect if you saw it in a 320px box to the right hand side of an article you were reading? I doubt it.

So divided is our attention in those online environments, that we must think about how to tell stories that captivate the user almost immediately.

That’s a tangible effect on the way we craft stories, directly related to the sheer bombardment of information we’re faced with online.

Empathy & Oxytocin

Oxytocin creates empathy, it creates a bond. It’s most famous for being released when a mother breastfeeds their child, for example.

It’s a concept that brings us back to the idea of congruence, finding commonalities in our stories with the audience. If we know how to tug on their heart strings, we can elicit an emotional response from them.

Naturally there are myriad ways a story can do this. But one factor is the prior knowledge our audience has about a subject: different motivations of characters can cause us to either empathise with them, or not.

If we think about the Levi Creek example, we are placed in the position of the innocent girls, we believe we’re about to see a man get out of the water, six-pack on display, completely naked. We feel their anticipation, and empathise with them.

If the director (Johnny Hardstaff) had given us the knowledge that they were the old man’s jeans, we’d have been watching them from a different context, and wouldn’t have shared the experience or surprise when he was revealed to be wearing Levis.

So this narrative technique of holding back information, a lack of context, actually draws us into the story.

Creating empathy is all about understanding the audience’s knowledge and points of reference, and matching them. Do it right, and they’ll feel a natural bond with your product.

Reward & Dopamine

Dopamine is most famous for being the hormone released by social media notifications, and gaming.

But here, by ‘reward’, we’re talking about the story resolution, pay off or twist. A good story creates a ‘curiosity gap’ between the attention and the reward parts of a story, and a resolved curiosity gap will deliver dopamine in spades.

Conversely, if you don’t resolve the story satisfactorily then the audience will be annoyed. Right, Game of Thrones fans?

This concept can be very powerful when applied to a product, if you can use a product in a story to help resolve the narrative. This happens with the Levi’s in Creek.

Dopamine is a hormone associated with the creation of memories.

When we get that dopamine hit, we not only remember what gave us that feeling, but also where we were at the time. We remember the context.

This is why I remember feeling very strange inside, aged 11 in my living room, when that Levi’s ad came on.

If you construct stories well they give you an opportunity to teach someone something. But be careful regarding the context you present that solution in, because people will remember it too.

The future

Kudos for much of this goes to Ali Jennings, who discussed these three elements in his talk at Advertising Week London 2019. Here’s more on this topic from him:

So, how does this combine to point the way towards creating great campaigns in 2019? That’s what I’ll discuss in Part 3.