The Science of Storytelling: Psychological Insights into Why Stories Sell

Storytelling emerged as a fundamental human trait in every corner of the world, across all cultures and civilizations, 

From ancient epics to modern cinemas, stories have shaped our understanding, stirred our emotions, and guided our actions, often without us even realizing it. 

Jonathan Gottschall’s book, “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” offers a compelling exploration into how narratives have come to dominate human behavior. 

Jonathan Gottschall refers to humans as “Homo Narrans“, which translates to “storytelling man.” Gottschall argues that storytelling is a fundamental human instinct, deeply embedded in our species, which shapes our perception of the world and helps us navigate through life. 

He explores how stories influence every aspect of human behavior, from our entertainment and education to our communication and understanding of ourselves and others. This inherent drive to tell stories, according to Gottschall, distinguishes humans and has been crucial in our evolution and development as a species.

This article draws on Gottschall’s insights to uncover the psychological mechanisms that make storytelling an incredibly effective tool in marketing, explaining why stories have the power to persuade and influence like no other form of communication.

The Psychological Roots of Storytelling

Humans are storytelling animals. Our propensity for narratives is not just a cultural oddity but a key evolutionary advantage. 

Stories have historically been vehicles for transmitting vital information — the dos and don’ts of cultural norms, survival strategies, and moral lessons — in a format that is easily remembered and passed on.  

As such, stories play a pivotal role in the cognitive and social development of children. 

They are not merely tools for entertainment but serve as fundamental mechanisms through which young minds learn to navigate the world. 

Through stories, children grasp concepts of morality, empathy, and complex social relationships. 

This early engagement with narratives helps in developing critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence, as children learn to imagine themselves in different situations, understanding various perspectives and outcomes. This foundation is crucial for their overall psychological growth and maturity.

Research suggests that our brains are not just receptive to stories; they are structured to perceive and interpret the world through them. Neurological studies show that when we hear a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, our brains release cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin, chemicals involved in focusing attention, feeling emotions, and forging connections.

Our brains are not only designed to enjoy and learn from stories but also to create them spontaneously. 

When we dream, our mind weaves narratives to process complex emotions and experiences from our waking life. This storytelling process in dreams is a testament to the brain’s innate narrative instinct, highlighting the deep-seated role of storytelling in our psychological framework.

Furthermore, the evolution of storytelling can be traced back to its crucial role in human survival. 

Early humans who could effectively tell stories were likely better at passing on important information, from warning about dangers to sharing successful hunting strategies. This ability to encapsulate and transmit knowledge through stories likely conferred significant evolutionary advantages, reinforcing social bonds and enhancing group cohesion.

As stories evolved, they became not just a survival tool but also a sophisticated means of cultural expression, used to explore human experiences and convey moral teachings. 

The narratives we create and share reflect our deepest values and fears, playing a critical role in shaping cultural norms and individual identities. This profound impact underscores the power of storytelling to influence not only individual behavior but also the collective conscience of societies.

Nations are built not just on land and laws but on shared stories of founding, identity, and purpose. Religions similarly weave complex tales of morality, existence, and salvation that guide millions. 

On a personal level, each individual crafts a self-narrative that frames their experiences, aspirations, and values. 

Recognizing these narratives allows marketers to tap into deeply held beliefs and values, creating messages that resonate on a fundamental level. This understanding underscores the transformative power of storytelling, not just in selling products but in shaping perceptions and behaviors at a societal scale.

As a company focused on storytelling, Lexicon taps into this core human drive to tell effective stories through our video production agency in Bangkok.

Storytelling in Marketing: More Than Just Telling Tales

In marketing, storytelling is used not merely to communicate features or benefits of a product but to create connections that engage on a much deeper emotional level. 

Emotional engagement is key: a consumer emotionally connected to a brand is not only more likely to buy what’s being sold but also to become a lifelong customer.

In marketing, storytelling that positions the consumer as the hero is profoundly effective. This strategy is exemplified in Donald Miller’s “StoryBrand” framework, which aligns with Jonathan Gottschall’s insights into narrative’s power. 

In StoryBrand framework, Miller lays out a powerful marketing approach that centers around the idea of making the customer the hero of the story. 

This method involves seven steps that guide businesses to clarify their message so it resonates with consumers. 

Key steps include identifying the customer’s problem, positioning the brand as the guide with a solution, and calling the customer to action that leads to success while helping them avoid failure. This customer-centric approach ensures the narrative is relatable and engaging, directly impacting the effectiveness of marketing efforts.

Consider how brands like Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have used narratives not just to sell products but to build iconic brands that stand for much more than the sum of their parts. 

These stories often evoke strong emotions, leading to enhanced brand loyalty and consumer spending. We know a branding agency in Bangkok that can help.

Apple’s marketing campaigns, such as the “Genius” and “1000 Songs in Your Pocket” campaigns, are prime examples of this approach. 

The Genius Campaign was more than a celebration of Apple’s products; it was a tribute to the creativity and innovation of its users. Apple cast its customers as ‘geniuses,’ capable of creating remarkable things with tools like the Mac. 

This narrative fostered a community of users who saw Apple products as extensions of their creative and intellectual capabilities, thus deepening their emotional and psychological engagement with the brand. In this example, the consumer is the hero, while Apple plays the role of the helpful guide here to solve your problems and enhance your life.

The “1000 Songs in Your Pocket” Campaign for the iPod revolutionized how consumers interacted with music. By focusing on the capability of the iPod to store a vast music library, Apple positioned the device as a personal soundtrack for every part of a user’s life. This wasn’t just about carrying 1000 songs; it was about having the right song for every moment, instantly accessible. The perfect soundtrack for a hero’s life.

This campaign transformed the iPod into a must-have tool for personal expression through music, showcasing the user as a curator of their own unique musical world.

In these campaigns, Apple paints its customers as creative and empowered heroes who use Apple’s innovative products to overcome challenges and enhance their lives. This not only highlights the product’s features but also builds a strong emotional bond with the consumer, fostering brand loyalty and engagement. 

By viewing themselves as protagonists in a story of technological empowerment facilitated by Apple, customers are more likely to feel a deep connection to the brand.

These campaigns exemplify how Apple doesn’t just sell technology; it sells the idea that anyone can achieve greatness with the right tools. The emotional resonance of this narrative is powerful, making Apple products more than just gadgets; they are catalysts for creativity and personal expression.

The Elements of an Effective Story

An effective story in marketing must have relatability, conflict, and resolution. Relatability allows the audience to see themselves in the story; conflict creates tension and engagement, driving the narrative forward; and resolution provides satisfaction or a call to action. 

Authenticity is crucial: today’s consumers are savvy and can detect insincerity, which can turn them away from a brand. Marketers must craft stories that are true to their brand’s values and resonate with their target audience’s aspirations and needs.

Incorporating Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots” can provide a deeper understanding of how classic narrative structures can be effectively utilized in marketing. These seven plots include: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Each plot type resonates with audiences in different ways and can be tailored to highlight the core message of a marketing campaign.

By aligning a brand’s narrative with one of these fundamental plots, marketers can craft stories that not only resonate deeply with their target audience but also drive the narrative forward through relatable conflicts and satisfying resolutions. This approach ensures that the story aligns with the brand’s values and authentically connects with consumer aspirations, enhancing engagement and trust.

Overcoming the Monster: Like David versus Goliath, Nike’s marketing often depicts athletes facing and overcoming significant challenges, positioning its products as key tools in the battle against personal and competitive obstacles.

Rags to Riches: Reflecting the tale of Cinderella, Apple’s journey from a garage to tech supremacy illustrates a transformation that inspires customers and other entrepreneurs.

The Quest: Reminiscent of “The Odyssey,” SpaceX’s mission to revolutionize space travel embodies the spirit of a quest, portraying the company as a trailblazer navigating the unknown for humanity’s benefit.

Voyage and Return: Similar to “Alice in Wonderland,” Airbnb encourages travelers to embark on journeys that transform their understanding of the world, enriching their lives with new experiences and insights.

Comedy: Echoing the playful and often chaotic themes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” GQ Apparel’s advertisements use absurdity and humor to captivate and entertain, creating memorable and effective marketing.

Tragedy: Like the story of “Hamlet,” Patagonia’s environmental campaigns use the tragic narrative of planetary loss to underline the serious consequences of unchecked consumerism, urging sustainable choices.

Rebirth: Drawing parallels with “The Phoenix,” Old Spice revitalized its brand image from outdated to dynamic, targeting a new generation with vibrant, energetic marketing campaigns.

Applying Storytelling to Different Media

Since the dawn of humanity, storytelling has evolved from cave paintings and oral narratives around campfires, serving as a primary means of preserving history and culture.

With the invention of papyrus, stories could be recorded more permanently, transforming narrative traditions and accessibility.

The development of the printing press further revolutionized storytelling, making literature accessible on a massive scale and setting the stage for the media-rich environment we navigate today.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, technological advancements like the telegram and the telephone introduced new, immediate ways to share stories across distances, leading to the broadcast innovations of radio and television, which offered dynamic and real-time storytelling possibilities.

Today, digital platforms like social media, blogs, and podcasts have democratized storytelling even further, allowing individual voices to share their narratives globally and interactively. While choosing the best web design agency in Bangkok is as vital as ever.

Each medium has shaped the structure and style of storytelling, reflecting and influencing the cultural and technological landscapes of its time.

The medium through which a story is told can dramatically affect how that story is received. Traditional media like television and print offer a controlled, linear narrative path.

In contrast, digital platforms provide opportunities for interactive and nonlinear storytelling, where consumers can choose how deeply to engage with the content.

Each medium has its strengths and challenges, and understanding these can help marketers tailor their storytelling strategies effectively.

For instance, social media platforms are ideal for shorter, more visual stories, while blogs and podcasts can delve deeper into complex narratives.


The power of storytelling is evident in its longevity and universality — traits that have only been amplified in the digital age. 

As Jonathan Gottschall puts it in “The Storytelling Animal,” stories continue to evolve but remain the fundamental fabric of human society. 

For marketers and CEOs, embracing the science and art of storytelling can transform how they connect with their audiences. It’s not just about selling a product but about crafting narratives that resonate on a deeply human level, making each communication not just heard but felt and remembered.

About the Author

David Norcross is an award-winning LinkedIn & marketing & Executive Branding expert with over 15 years of experience in the industry and over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. He’s the founder and CEO of Lexicon as well as the Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand Marketing & Communications Committee.

Lexicon is an award-winning brand storytelling agency focusing on telling impactful stories for clients based in Thailand and South East Asia.


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