Shahin Javadi (LinkedIn) is a multi-platform storyteller and an advocate of science, change and innovation who truly believes the only way forward is to infuse creativity into every moment of our lives. His film 28 Percent Pure was featured in over 15 international festivals and screened on 5 continents. He co-founded TEDxUniversityofTehran and TEDxTUA and is currently the producer of String Cast, a popular Farsi-language podcast about stories from the world of science and technology. He also founded IESFF, an international film festival devoted to giving voice to students across the globe, organized in partnership with HBO and IE University.

We are surrounded by content. From hundreds of TV shows to social media and everything else in between, content is essential for capturing our brain’s attention in this hectic world. While content is a hot term right now, it’s much more than just a modern marketing tool. Generation after generation has used different forms of content to intrigue and entice people.

Historically, people had to rely on trial and error to figure out which stories would be most effective for reaching their goals. But today’s writers have a secret weapon: they can use insights into how the brain works to their advantage.

Using the latest in neuroscience, we can understand how a story affects the brain and what most grabs people’s attention. We can also take advantage of humans’ instinctive traits to create the ultimate narrative.

Content that helps us survive, or at least get through the day

Imagine you’re a caveman, unsure of the world around you with danger lurking around every corner. Now imagine one of your friends shares the story of how a hunter in his tribe ate a mushroom and almost died. From this story, you would’ve learned crucial information about your survival and therefore, had a better chance of living than the people who haven’t heard the story.

Your brain processes this story the same as it does a real-life event. The “mirror neuron” offers us a simulated learning experience, providing a way to understand how the world works without actually facing danger. Even though these kinds of dangers are minimal in this day and age, this trait has stuck with us, attracting us to stories that promote our survival. Whether this survival is about dodging dangerous lions or the modern equivalent of “10 efficient ways to pack your luggage.”

Content that tells a story

Neuroscience of content marketing: How a story affects the brain

According to researcher Uri Hasson, when we listen to a person telling a story with a clear plot, our brain waves sync up with them. For the duration of the conversation our brainwaves seemingly become one.

Without a plot, your content becomes boring, and people lose interest.

For a successful plot, you need three main ingredients:

  • The character: the person your content is revolving around. Sometimes that’s the reader, sometimes it’s a customer, sometimes it’s someone inside the company (the narrator) and sometimes it’s just an original character created for your content.
  • The theme: this is the core message you’re hoping your audience perceives while engaging with your content. Your theme should be as simple as possible, because the more straightforward the goal, the easier it is to convey.
  • The storyline: this is the journey your audience takes with you and through the character you’ve established to better understand the theme you’re hoping they take away from the content.

With these elements in place, your audience can easily focus on your content and follow it every step of the way. If these elements are missing, your content might become a collection of random text and visuals without a clear message, and when that happens, everything you produce will automatically enter the “junk” folder of the brain and be forgotten within seconds.

Precise focus helps the brain differentiate your content and mark it as important. Focus leads to more dopamine, which is the happiness hormone of the brain, and that, in turn, will lead to higher impressions, more engagement, and better action from your audience. 

Content that uses emotion

Researcher Antonio Damasio once studied a man with a brain tumor that made him incapable of experiencing emotions. Even though this patient scored highly on IQ and intelligence tests, without the help of his emotions, he was unable to make any kind of decision.

Emotion is an integral part of the human experience and is essential for our survival. That’s why good content must aim for the heart instead of the brain and make the audience emotional about the theme it’s trying to convey.

Every day, we see big brands shifting their strategy to make us react emotionally, from Dove’s #RealMoms campaign to Nike’s controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign.

Content that is visually stimulating

When we think about something, are our thoughts written words like a book, or concepts and images formed in our imagination? Antonio Damasio has done a few studies that prove our consciousness is mostly made up of images.

Economists, scientists and businesses use images, infographics and videos to explain complicated concepts, and we can see the effectiveness of this in our media consumption. The popularity of platforms such as Instagram and YouTube is proof of the efficacy of visual imagery and its success in conveying a message.

Content that uses patterns

Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran has done numerous studies on the definition of beauty in our brain. Among many underlying factors he has discovered, one of the most prominent seems to be our desire for finding patterns in the world.

Our brain hates randomness.

Patterns are an efficient way to help us push processes into our subconscious mind and therefore use less energy to think about them. That’s why the brain strives to discover patterns in every detail of our surrounding world.

Having a specific pattern for content scheduling, style and formatting can create a pattern in the mind of your audience, which will ultimately help convert casual followers into devoted fans, even if they don’t fully understand why.

Our brain is a fascinating yet mysterious miracle that has wowed us for thousands of years. With over 100 billion neurons it will take decades to fully understand how it works and behaves. Yet our knowledge so far allows us to understand how our brain interacts with the world and how, with just a few tweaks, we can create content that works and makes people excited about the message we want to share.