What Every Marketer Needs to Know About Language and the Brain


Vice President, Strategic Sales Development , Business Development

Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest and most ubiquitous arts. Stories powerfully connect us to our listeners in a way that facts alone never do.

But did you know that stories – from reading fairytales to your children to entertaining friends at the bar – can actually change your brain chemistry? The way that language effects and shapes our minds is still a rapidly expanding field, but it seems every year researchers are finding new information about how our minds react to verbal stimulus. We, as marketers, are wise to watch these discoveries unfold.

Written stories, like classic literature, have some startling effects on our mind. One study found that reading literature actual rewires our brain, while another found that reading literary fiction improves our ability to decode emotions. That latter study, conducted last year by psychologists at the New School for Social Research, found the same effect in nonfiction, or even “pop” fiction. But the written word doesn’t get to have all the fun.

So what should we marketers know about language and the brain?

  • The Incredible Effect of Stories on Our Brain –  To say “the brain reacts to language” is obvious. But did you know that the brain reacts differently to stories than other kinds of language? Our brain actually processes “boring” information entirely differently than it does information presented in story form. As Leo Widrich at Buffer points out, hearing a story causes a storm of activity in our brain, much of which has little or to nothing to do with language processing. Hearing stories ignites parts of our brain that are associated with the event being described. So telling you about a savory steak dinner will light up the sensory cortex, while describing a morning jog will light up the motor cortex.Buffer continues to describe the “synchronizing” effect of storytelling. Researchers have found that when certain regions of the brain associated with emotions are lighting up while telling a story, so too are the brain regions in the listener.
  • Use the Words That Count – Great storytelling makes for great marketing. This science merely confirms what some marketers have been doing all along – stirring the imaginations with evocative language. If you’re selling food, for instance, descriptive storytelling about your succulent shrimp will target areas of the brain involved in actually enjoying the culinary delight. Researchers in Spain found that words strongly associated with smell or taste like “perfume” and “coffee” lit up the olfactory cortex, the area of the brain used in processing smells.
  • Avoid Cliches – Other studies have found an opposite effect on over-used phrases. Researchers, as The New York Times notes, have found that many cliches like “had a rough day” make a minimal impact on our brain activity and get processed “simply as words.” In other words, to risk using another cliche, they go in one ear and out the other.
  • Puzzles to Boost Brand Recognition – The “Eureka!” moment we experience when solving problems may help provide a marketing boost, Neuromarketing reports. Specifically, a study found that solving word puzzles to reveal a branded word increased brand recognition and preference. It’s possible that solving other forms of puzzles – riddles or games, for instance – could be a handy trick in a marketer’s tool belt.
  •  Freedom Works Better than Compulsion – It may seem counter-intuitive to everything we’ve learned about calls to action, but studies are suggesting there might be some merit to the “soft sell.” A study cited by Neuromarketing notes that simply reminding people they are free to do as they please actually doubles the likelihood of compliance. In other words, reminding your a client they would really benefit from your service – but they are free to make their own choice – works better than arguing the benefit of your service alone.  Neuromarketing offers this example: “The numbers show our solution will cut your monthly expenses by 15%. But, of course, you are free to choose.”

These are just a a few examples of how  marketers can benefit from understanding how our brain works. Of course, our challenge as marketers is to interpret and utilize this data to more effectively reach consumers. As cognitive science and psychology continue to shed light on the inner workings of our mind, marketers will be faced with new challenges to translate this into effective campaigns – and we can’t wait.