The Science behind Storytelling for DMOs

Storytelling: The word has been trending for a few years now, and its popularity highlights the importance of well-structured narratives in an era where authenticity and transparency are highly valued by consumers.

What Is Storytelling in Destination Marketing?

More than just facts and history about a locale, a good story will set the mood for your destination, spurring the imagination of readers and users. It will inspire travellers to dream up their own tale of excitement from the scene that you’ve set for them, or it will create a plot so memorable that individuals will be able to recount the details with complete ease.

The Science that Supports It

And this isn’t just fancy marketing jargon either; there is scientific evidence that supports the strength of a good story. Studies have found that good stories activate both the primary sensory areas (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) and Broca’s (speech production) and Wernicke’s (written and spoken language) areas in your brain.

In one of the studies by Emory University, subjects were given metaphors such as ‘the singer had a velvet voice,’ which activated the sensory cortex, and sentences like ‘Pablo kicked the ball,’ which activated the motor cortex. These were in addition to the activated Broca’s and Wernicke’s sections of the brain.

It Activates Emotions Too

But more than fully engaging your brain, stories appeal to your emotions too. That movie that made you cry didn’t achieve an epic reaction because of its special effects; it did so because it was character driven.

Research by Paul J. Zak,  the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, found that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis in the body. Moreover, the level of oxytocin released also projected the helpful actions of others after the stories. For instance, those with higher levels of oxytocin were more willing to donate to causes associated with the narrative.

In business settings, similar experiments have found that character-driven stories featuring emotional content enable individuals to better understand and recall key points that the speaker has made.

“We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention—a scarce resource in the brain—by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300,” says Zak in an article for Harvard Business Review.

How to Use Storytelling: Create Compelling Characters and Narratives

So, how can all this scientific information help a DMO tell its story? First, think of your destination’s narrative and characters. Are you simply naming the restaurants and activities people can experience while visiting your area? Or, are you telling them the tale of Shawn, a twenty-five-year-old banker who travelled to your location’s famed farmers’ market for the first time, only to find that one taste of artisanal spices unleashed his passion for cooking and started him on a culinary adventure of a lifetime?

Are you creating tales of romance, adventure or bravery that people can connect to? Or, are you letting people know that the monument in your city attracts thousands of visitors each year?

Get Creative and Tell Stories on Every Channel

Of course, there is always a time and place for a well-told story, but, overall, DMOs should strive to incorporate storytelling into as many areas as they can, from Facebook and brochures to IG TV, television commercials and beyond.  Even the way a website is designed can carefully incorporate elements of storytelling.

Travel Oregon, for example, goes beyond generic DMO language to create a setting that potential visitors can immerse themselves in. “When you hike the autumn forests, breathe the crisp air, and are humbled by the snowy mountains. The magic is intangible, but you’ll swear it was there all around you,” reads an introduction on their website, exemplifying how language can evoke an atmosphere and mood that readers can latch onto—and better yet, aspire to.

Similarly, the way they’ve labelled their experiences strays from the standard ‘activities,’ ‘dining,’ and ‘entertainment’ segmentation. Instead, they have moods and feelings to reflect the type of trip visitors can experience, ranging from ‘relaxed’ and ‘magical’ to ‘silly’ and ‘nostalgic.’

Other DMOs, like Visit Phoenix and Travel Wyoming, have dedicated story sections on their websites, appropriately labelled ‘PHX Stories’ and ‘Wyoming Stories.’ The purpose of both is to reveal the narratives of locals, thus highlighting the experiences available in each destination. This ‘point of view’ perspective allows website users to understand the regions on a personal and emotional level—activating all the areas of the brain, as scientists would say—creating memorable impressions with lasting value.


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