Behavioural science principles: tell stories

Behaviouralscience principles: tell stories

Table of contents

We tell stories a lot

Scenes of scandal, tales of woe, adrenaline-fuelled action, laugh-your-socks-off moments, absolute tear-jerkers, hide-behind-your-hands horror, heart-warming happy endings… You name it, we’re into it. From the most fantastic fables to gritty true-life drama, storytelling is simply a part of life.

You only have to glance at Netflix to see how much we rely on stories for entertainment. Even the shows’ descriptions are mini stories, designed to make you hit Play. Like this one:

Welcome to Hawkins, Indiana, a small town with big secrets. Strange sightings. Government cover ups. And a dark force that turns everything upside down.

Did you guess the show? Stranger things have happened…

These mini stories remind me of six word memoirs. The idea is to tell a brief but powerful story of your life. They are inspired by author Ernest Hemingway’s response when he was challenged to write an impossibly short story and returned with: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Hemingway’s concise yet powerful writing style would have served him well today. Whilst sophisticated narrative arcs, addictive plot twists and award-winning acting might hold our attention in movies and shows (who doesn’t love a binge watch?), our tolerance is much lower elsewhere. Perhaps this is due to the sheer weight of user-generated traffic, as we are invited to add “Your Story” or share “What’s on your mind?” through social media.

overhead view of drawn storyboards

Why we tell stories

We tell stories because people tend to remember more from stories than from facts, partly due to the emotional reaction (Lordly, 2007).

Many a teenager has rolled their eyes when an elder starts a sentence with “When I was your age…” but these handed-down stories have served us well, as generations have used the power of storytelling to pass on their knowledge. The moral of the story may vary but the concept is the same – Learn. Learn from my mistakes, my wisdom, my experience, my insight and hindsight. Learn.

Connecting with others like us or who we want to be like is even more powerful (Elder, say hello to Influencer). Research shows that people are heavily influenced by what other people do — especially by those they’re similar to, or want to be like (Cialdini, 2007).

So, the storyteller is a very important cog in the story machine. When they speak from their own experience, it’s their authentic truth that we connect with.

That’s why, here at BAD, when we design experiences that change peoples’ behaviour, we tell authentic stories that will engage people and demonstrate good practice. It’s one of the 14 behavioural science principles of our mantra and sits under the banner of “I connect with others”.

groupf of family and friends around a table with a man stood up telling a story to the group

The power of a well told story

Trigger warning: mention of suicide

There are few more powerful examples of how telling stories can affect behavioural change than “The last photo” created by Adam & Eve/DDB for the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

Led by the uncomfortable truths that “suicidal doesn’t always look suicidal” and “suicide hides behind a smile”, the campaign went beyond raising awareness to tackle this misunderstood aspect of suicidal behaviour in the hope of actively preventing it.

The campaign’s powerfully simple 90-second TV ad features the last videos of real people before they committed suicide – smiling, laughing, joking, celebrating. Viewers are directed to find out how to help save lives on the CALM website.

The creatives behind the campaign say the film is, in fact, “a celebration of the people and the joy they gave to the world, which makes the true nature of what they were really feeling all the more harrowing.”

As hard as it is to watch, this example demonstrates — sensitively and beautifully — how real stories allow people to understand how others react in a situation, and build voluntary cooperation (Zak, 2014), hopefully saving lives.

How we tell stories

We love telling stories at BAD. We have created micro-scenarios, epic episodic adventures and everything in between. We have created short movie-trailer ‘teasers’ and threaded complex business stories all the way through a blended learning solution too. We have interviewed and directed real people who have shared their authentic experiences and we’ve used actors to recreate scenes based on reality, where the viewer interacts and make decisions on what happens next. We’ve told stories without words, just actions and we’ve written scripts for characters with complex back stories too.

When a client asked us to help their employees understand how to best service their most vulnerable customers, we started with real customer experiences. By understanding the challenges they faced when trying to use the services and how this made them feel, we were able to script four short monologue stories. Simply shot, in their own environment, these four customers (played by actors) shared their innermost thoughts and feelings. By using emotions, the viewer was able to connect with the customer on a deeper, more personal level before then embarking on the more practical learning that followed (remember, real stories build voluntary cooperation).

This is just one of the many stories we have told at BAD. We’d love to show you some more, so why not get in touch?

team of colleagues sharing stories

Final questions...

  • What’s your six word memoir? Mine is “I write stories that change lives.”
  • Can you imagine a world without stories? No works of Shakespeare or Dickens, no Disney or Dahl, no Lennon & McCartney, no Spielberg or Rowling, to name but a few. Who are your favourite story-tellers? What indelible mark have they left on you? How do they inspire your story-telling?
  • Need help from CALM? CALM Helpline 5pm to midnight, 365 days of the year: 0800 58 58 58

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