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:

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road.

“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.

Wray notes,

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.

Related resources:
Why Good Ad Copy Works
Your Unique Story Proposition
Livia Blackburne – A Brain Scientist’s Take on Creative Writing

  1. Lee Pound says

    Roger, this goes right to the heart of why stories are so needed in our advertising materials. Stories do directly affect the emotional centers as you said. Thank you for a very good article.

  2. Casey Hibbard says


    I’ve been looking for science that shows the effect of stories, so thanks for sharing this.

    In marketing, telling true stories of customers’ experiences has proven to be very effective, but many don’t make the effect to capture these stories. The ones that do create them don’t leverage them enough. They’re not only valuable in building trust with prospects but in training internal sales reps, etc. on the value derived.

  3. Linda says

    I read in a book by Levine, an advertising executive, that he did a direct marketing test with his best copywriters. One mailing had the usual long sales letter with the plea for buying a product. The other mailing had a story using the five senses. The second mailing with the story pulled in a much better response rate than the usual sales letter.

    Stories always work much better than cold hard facts.

  4. Julius Kuhn-Regnier says

    I yesterday realized how effective and important story telling is. I love stories and I think everyone else does too.
    Thank you for the reminder.

  5. Robert Jordan says

    Folks fail to realise that the simplest source of good stories is yourself and your own life. One great advantage of (a)noticing and (b) writing down the incidents in your life is that nobody else has them and they DO show you as human and help to identify you with your audience … “oh yeah, I’ve done that too”… “I know exactly what you’re talking about”. It’s also fun to tell self-deprecating stories … when you put your foot in it or made an idiot of yourself. RJ

  6. Angela DeFinis says

    In marketing, advertising, public speaking and at the dinner table, stories unite us, reduce our fears, connect us to the collective unconscious and make wisdom accessible in everyday life. I know they are used to sell things–ideas, products, policies–but they also stand alone, thank goodness, just for us to experience. Thank you for this great piece. I’m glad to know someone is doing this work.

  7. Taylor Marek says

    Good point Roger. Incorporating storytelling is always the better avenue to take, especially when you want to engage your market.

  8. Bryan Knight says

    It’s so true about stories. The best referrals I get are from those of my web pages that recount a story of how someone used hypno-psychotherapy to improve his or her life. Hmmm. Must add more. 🙂

  9. Helene van Gorsel says

    Although I agree that you’re more likely to read the story to its end and remember it than facts and specifications, I may be a bit too rational in not taking it more seriously than just that: a story. In order to buy anything I really need some facts too. The story does capture attention in a general way though.

  10. Robyn Hatcher says

    Love this post. Teach about stories all the time in my work as a public speaking/presenation skills coach. Gives validity to Aristotle quote – “The soul never thinks without a mental image.”

  11. Beryl Shaw says

    I sat there with my mouth gaping. How is it ‘I wondered’ that not one of your responders only commented without telling a story?

    The first of my latest 2 books which help people move through the cancer experience (Cancer – a Journey) begins with :

    “In July 2001 I found myself in hospital having middle-of-the-night emergency surgery for cancer. When a surgeon stands by your bed saying, very gently ‘Beryl, I have to tell you, I can’t guarantee you’ll come off the operating table alive’ that is one of life’s defining moments.”

    If you or anyone close to you has had cancer I expect that lights up your brain.

    Beryl Shaw

  12. Rachel says

    Great post! Thank you! It inspires me to do more research about my own neurons. 😉

  13. James Frey says

    This is great. I have known about the power of storytelling for some time, but it’s great to find the scientific evidence to back it up. My wife is a child therapist and for a longtime has used guided imagery and stories as a cognitive tool to help her clients deal with fears and the effects of trauma. When I shared your entry with her, she gave me that “d’uh” that spouses sometimes give each other. To her, stories have been a powerful tool, she wonders why only now others are realizing that same power. It’s great that you shared this with your readers and gave us that ‘a-ha’ moment.

  14. Ben Joven says

    I like the piano ad…

    The serif font wouldn’t work now-a-days, but change it up with your standard helvetica black font and you’re good to go.

  15. Chester Davis says

    I always appreciate some scientific insight into how and why certain types of marketing work. So, this post was obviously quite interesting for me.

    So, what about writing for nonprofits? I bet the same rule applies: tell a story about the people served, the programs they participate in, and so forth. I wonder how the ideas in the post would be applied differently in a fundraising appeal versus an attempt to market some program or cause. Hmmm…

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I think the effect would be the same for any kind of appeal, profit or non-profit. Stories engage our brains, and help us visualize the effect of an action we might take, whether it is to purchase a product or help a worthy cause.


  16. stiennon says

    Last year I was lucky to be in Dublin on the 250th anniversary of Guinness. We went to a dinner/storytelling show at a cheerful pub and heard first hand how the power of storytelling evolved in Ireland from a master storyteller. It was a great reminder of how the human mind wraps itself around stories. Years ago I learned to abandon powerpoint bullet points and turn all of my presentations into storytelling. I always get great responses!

  17. Fnor@site piano says

    Personally, when I see these sentences I run away the further I can…

    I prefer a short description of the product than a full story that doesn’t even happen!

  18. George Torok says

    Terrific article. As both a marketer and a speaker I appreciate the power of stories to engage and persuade people.

    This point seems to be illustrated well by the recent popularity of the “Snow blower ad” on Kijiji

  19. Paul says

    It’s clear that people lower their guard while hearing good stories. We are completely into stories, when they’re well written/said. I have the exact situation in my market: I sell piano lessons for French people on the web, and a concurrent of mine has used the exact translation of your first sentence “they laughed…”. He has had good results!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Sometimes good ideas work forever, Paul! Thanks for stopping by and sharing!


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