Your Brain on Stories
“They laughed when I sat down at the piano…”
“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students…”
Advertising buffs will instantly recognize these two opening lines. The first is from an ad penned by the legendary John Caples promoting music lessons by mail. The second is the beginning of a Martin Conroy-written Wall Street Journal ad, which my friend Brian Clark, aka Copyblogger, describes as “the greatest sales letter of all time.”
What do these two ads have in common, besides being amazingly successful and almost completely ageless? (Both ran for decades essentially unchanged, largely unheard of in the fast-paced world of advertising.) The answer is simple: these unusually effective ads each tell a story.
That these stories resonated with readers for so long is very telling. In The Narrative in the Neurons, Wray Herbert describes another timeless piece of text, the opening lines of The Tower Treasure, a Hardy Boys novel first published in 1927:
“He’ll hit us! We’d better climb this hillside—and fast!” Frank exclaimed, as the boys brought their motorcycles to a screeching halt and leaped off.
“On the double!” Joe cried out as they started up the steep embankment.
When subjects read this passage and several others in an fMRI machine, researchers were able to observe which parts of their brain were activated as the subjects read different elements. Depending on what was happening in each sentence, quite different brain activation patterns were observed:
For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.
Readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.
Clearly, the narratives in the successful ads resonated in some special and universal way with their readers. We’ve all experienced moments of social discomfort, much like the would-be pianist who sits down at the piano only to have his friends laugh. And we’ve all had moments of pride when others acknowledge our skill or accomplishments. Is the narrative nature of the wording in “They Laughed When I Sat Down…” bringing these deep-seated memories to the surface to produce a more profound effect than had the ad simply suggested that we could impress our friends if we could play the piano?
My advice: to engage potential customers, write a vivid story involving your product. It’s worked for the best copy writers and most successful ads in history, and it can work for you.