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Humans Interpret the World Through Narrative

By Michael Neelsen

The human brain is hardwired to receive information in narrative form.

If you wake up looking forward to wearing your new outfit to work and spill coffee on it, this thought might cross your mind: “My day just got off to a bad start.” This thought in itself is your brain taking the inherently meaningless event of coffee falling on your shirt and placing it in the larger temporal context of “your day.”

When you’re watching a football game, you see the running back take the ball two yards before being tackled. But that is not what your brain sees. Your brain interprets this single, inherently meaningless event as but one point in a larger sequence: the drive.

Three years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, many people were irritated by Hollywood’s desire to produce two 9/11 films. There is an ethical argument to be made there, but the impetus for the storytellers was to bring meaning and context to what appeared on its face to be meaningless death and destruction.

Emma Kafalenos defines narrative in her book Narrative Causalities as “a sequential representation of sequential events.” Narrative provides context and perspective for meaningless facts.

This is why it is actually not a good idea for brands to lead their marketing efforts with facts, figures, features and benefits. Each feature is important and places your brand in a good light, but only when received by your audience in the context of the narrative you have constructed. To hang naked, dry facts out there is the riskiest choice of all.

For example, Google has on its website the following quote describing ideal prospective employees: “Other companies screen for intelligence and experience in potential recruits. But Google also looks for “‘Googliness’ – a mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot.”

This naked statement is dangerous because it could either be interpreted as an invitation to the ultimate go-getter career or as an ominous indication that Google will expect you to work excessively long hours. Google has ceded the ground of narrative and is allowing its audience to interpret its statements however they will.

Clothe your naked statements in the robe of story and your audience will receive your facts, features and benefits in exactly the way you want them to.