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It’s All About the Story

Ogilvy PR looks at the science behind narrative success
  • August 06 2012

Chris Graves likes to make sense of the world around him. As global CEO of Ogilvy PR, that means he not only wants to know what makes a good story, but why a story resonates with an audience. And he wants to understand the science behind the reasons, delving into the intersection of behavioral economics, neuro­science and storytelling.

You could say he wants to get into people’s heads. Literally, since for the past several years he has been studying the latest research and literature on how the human brain stores sensory and experiential data, and he has been assimilating that information so it can be used to create more effective communications strategies.

The result is a detailed methodology that Ogilvy PR, part of WPP, uses with its clients that incorporates the latest developments in neuroscience and the proven tenets of emotional narratives. More than 7,000 people from Ogilvy’s clients have been taken through the research, helping them get their brands’ stories to stand out in today’s very loud media market.

“It’s meant to align us into a common point of view on storytelling,” says Graves. Among Ogilvy PR’s clients, that might mean Ford letting its consumers use social media to create the storyline around its new vehicles, or BP using video profiles of Gulf Coast residents and businesses to help promote tourism in the area two years after the 2010 oil spill.

As with all the organizations under the Ogilvy umbrella, Ogilvy PR’s approach begins with the agency’s Fusion model. It incorporates practices from each of Ogilvy’s disciplines—advertising, PR, direct, digital, shopper and the like—and strips away the labels to create a battle plan around the client’s business ambition, i.e., what actions does it want people to take? It’s more than simply a collaborative approach, says Graves. “It’s not 360  degree marketing, but the right 10 degrees at the right time,” he says.

From the PR side, Ogilvy then incorporates its narrative methodology. The goal is not to supplant creativity, “but to add this layer of social science and brain science to make us more effective,” notes Graves. “Forever, agencies have not embraced the scientific side, not at the depth of what value it can provide.”

Graves begins his exploration of narrative with the work of behavioral neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, who looks at how the brain works when it comes to making decisions. The breakthrough of Damasio’s research, says Graves, is that the brain needs both its emotional driver and its reasoning portion to work together during decision making. Without emotions, people are unable to reason.

He combines neuroscience findings with behavioral economics principles. These include the dreaded “confirmation bias” wherein people reject all evidence they are wrong and accept only evidence that confirms their view. All this helps Ogilvy PR craft more effective messages and stories, says Graves. “The most creative messaging or narrative in the world means nothing to our clients if it doesn’t work.”

Finally, Graves examines the concept of “mirror neurons,” often thought of as the biological root of human empathy. In recent studies by Princeton professor Uri Hasson, it was found that human brain patterns mirror each other simply through listening to stories. Hasson calls this “neural coupling,” but Graves notes its “like the old Vulcan mind meld from Star Trek.”

If stories can link two people’s minds, what kind of narrative style will best create mirror neurons in the listener? Ogilvy PR recommends its clients follow certain guiding principles:

Show, don’t tell: Use a visual form of narrative that allows the listener to deduce the meaning without a summary. Graves calls this creating a movie in the listener’s mind.

Employ analogies and metaphors: For complex topics, make the story relevant to the target through comparisons and analogies in lieu of jargon.

Maximize “the identifiable victim effect”: Behavioral economics teaches that telling a story about a single individual resonates much more than a pile of statistics.

It may seem overkill to bring neuroscience principles to communications, but Graves contends that understanding the science behind personal behavior allows Ogilvy PR to craft narratives that move people to action. “Brain research tells us why humans react the way they do,” says Graves. “Emotion trumps rational in all decision making. Everything must be emotionally bonding. Simply saying ‘these are the facts’ won’t work.”