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The power of narrative: Storytelling as a catalyst for change

Profile photo of Martyn McDermott.

By Martyn McDermott

8 min read

A generic superhero reading a story with a yellow glow coming from the book he is holding

We've all been there - drowning in a sea of information, struggling to remember even a fraction. Yet, some nuggets of info manage to stick. Why do some messages stick while others fade away? The answer lies in storytelling.

Take a moment to reflect on something you've learned recently that you've then shared with a friend or colleague.

Chances are, you remembered it because it was presented as a story, making it far easier to remember and pass on.

"The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon."

Brandon Sanderson.

A catalyst for change

In a recent MAJOR podcast episode, our guest shared a transformative tale that propelled him into environmental activism and led him to overhaul his business practices radically. The story, narrated by an 11-year-old, was about a Hummingbird's valiant efforts to extinguish a forest fire.

I have heard numerous accounts of how this story has inspired countless others to take action for positive change. It raises the question: how can we learn from this example and harness the power of storytelling in our businesses to influence behaviour and make positive impacts?

But first, what about storytelling makes it so innately human?

The essence of humanity: Storytelling

Storytelling is a social tool that has evolved over millennia. Early humans used stories to share knowledge, warn of dangers, and instil social norms. This collective sharing of stories helped build communities and foster cooperation, which is vital for survival. Storytelling is a form of social glue that binds individuals together, creating a sense of belonging and identity.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his seminal work "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," posits that the ability to create and believe in fictional stories is what distinguishes Homo sapiens. This cognitive revolution has been a cornerstone of human civilisation; from the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux to the modern oral complexities of our global cultures, it has served as a conduit for shared values, experiences, and aspirations.

Storytelling is so compelling because of its ability to engage multiple facets of human cognition and feeling. When we hear a story, we don't just process information; we experience it. Our brains are wired to feel the emotions, visualise the scenes, and even simulate the actions described. This multisensory engagement makes the story more memorable and impactful.

Stories serve as mental models that help us navigate the world's complexities. They simplify intricate issues, making them easier to understand and relate to.

So, is storytelling an art form or a science? It's both.

The science behind the art

Storytelling isn't merely an art form; it's rooted in neuroscience. Stories have a unique ability to forge emotional connections by triggering the release of neurotransmitters like endorphins, making them powerful tools for emotional investment.

David JP Phillips, in his fascinating TEDx Stockholm talk, highlights the four neurotransmitters that are released when a story is told:

Endorphins: These are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. They create a sense of well-being and sometimes even euphoria.

Dopamine: A neurotransmitter associated with the brain's pleasure system. It provides feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate us proactively.

Serotonin: Often referred to as the "feel good" neurotransmitter, serotonin helps regulate mood, emotion, sleep, and appetite. It contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness.

Oxytocin: Known as the "love hormone," oxytocin is released when people bond socially and engage in trust behaviours. It's crucial for social bonding, maternal behaviours, and partnership.

The more emotionally invested your audience is, the less critical and objectively observant they become, making your narrative more impactful and memorable.

"Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought."

Mark Turner, Cognitive Scientist.

So, how can brands capitalise on this science to create an authentic narrative that resonates with their customers?

The authentic brand narrative: Your customers are the heroes

Loads of articles will tell you that an authentic brand narrative, aligned with an organisation's values and mission, is instrumental in building trust and fostering customer loyalty. Blah, blah, blah...

Guess what! Your customers don't care about your backstory. Customers don't give a hoot about all that. Customers aren't living your story. They're living their own story. When considering your brand, your customers want to know if they can trust you. That's it.

In his fantastic book Building a Story Brand, Donald Miller states that one of the primary reasons businesses don't see the returns on their marketing that they expect is that these businesses — or the marketing teams they hired — often make the mistake of casting themselves as the hero. In reality, your customers are the heroes of their stories, and your role is that of the guide. Think Yoda in Star Wars, Gandalf in LOTR, or Morpheus in The Matrix.

So be The Guide, tell them you know what they want:

  • Tell them how you help them solve their problem through their eyes

  • Focus on what the user gets rather than what you provide. Think about your customers' lives after they use your product or services. That's what they're after.

  • What problems or blockers are preventing your customers from getting what they want? As their guide, how can you help them overcome these hurdles?

How do I know what they want? I hear you ask. Well, empathy is the cornerstone of effective storytelling.

The role of empathy

Before telling a story, you must understand your audience's current problem and what they are pursuing. This involves listening to your audience and extracting specific elements from what they've said to infuse into your language and visuals.

"Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It's the impetus for creating change."

Barack Obama.

When people see that you understand their deepest desires — the reason they're seeking a solution to their problem, the life they want to live — they connect with you and trust you to help them solve their problem.

We are blessed today with myriad digital platforms to distribute our stories on — social media, blogs, and online forums — all of which provide a canvas for brands and organisations to share their stories with a global audience. Plus, the interactive nature of these platforms enables a two-way dialogue, enhancing engagement and allowing audiences to become co-creators of the narrative. Listen to your audiences and use their insights to build that empathy to feed back into your stories continuously.


Developing the skills of utilising the transformative power of storytelling is a no-brainer for brands and organisations aiming to drive positive action in today's complex socio-economic landscape.

Storytelling is not a mysterious art; it's practically a science, well, backed by neuroscience and psychology, at least. By focusing on the audience, understanding their needs, and framing narratives that place them as the hero, brands can resonate deeply and drive positive action. It's time to harness the transformative power of storytelling to sculpt a more inclusive and sustainable global narrative.

By embracing a human-centric narrative, making customers the story's heroes and our brands cast as the guide, we can lift our customers and make sure they feel empowered to conquer the problems they're experiencing. As a result, they engage more, and you grow your business.

So what are the positive impacts that your customers want to see and are struggling to achieve, and how can you transform your business to be the guide towards those impacts?

What are the stories others will pass on about your business?

Further Reading:

The Elements of Story - Francis Flaherty

Summary: This book serves as a guide for writers, journalists, and storytellers, offering insights into crafting compelling narratives. It delves into the nuances of storytelling, from structure to pacing, and provides practical tips for engaging the reader.

Key Highlights:

  • Importance of a strong opening

  • Crafting relatable characters

  • The role of conflict and resolution in storytelling

Made to Stick - Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Summary: This book explores why some ideas survive and others die. It presents the concept of "SUCCESs"---Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories---as the formula for creating sticky ideas.

Key Highlights:

  • The Curse of Knowledge: Knowing too much can make us forget what it's like not to know something, making our messages complex and hard to understand.

  • The power of simplicity and concreteness in communication.

  • Emotional engagement is crucial for an idea to "stick."

The Storytelling Animal - Jonathan Gottschall

Summary: Gottschall argues that humans are, by nature, storytelling animals. He explores how stories have shaped human evolution and continue influencing our daily lives.

Key Highlights:

  • The universality of storytelling across cultures and eras.

  • The psychological impact of storytelling.

  • How stories can both reflect and shape societal values.

Listen To Sam's Inspiring Story

Becoming NET POSITIVE: Pioneering Sustainable Business Growth with Sam Zindel

  • Climate-Positive Website - EFWA Accredited.
  • Ecologi.
  • SME Climate Hub.
  • The Green Web Foundation.