Storytelling in non-fiction books – the science behind why it works!

Earlier this month, John Lewis released their Christmas advert, which got me thinking. What is it about a story that works so well when sharing a message, and why is storytelling in non-fiction books essential to make them more readable?

Let’s discover the science behind storytelling and why it can make your book a far more brilliant read. 


Storytelling at its finest

There’s always a sense of excitement when the new Christmas adverts drop. As each year passes, the big brands try and outdo each other to get us feeling a tad emosh at all the festive wonder. 

After all, who can forget John Lewis’ trampoline-bouncing foxes in 2016 or Sainsbury’s football game in the trenches two years earlier?

2022 has been no exception – even Buddy from Elf made an appearance for Asda. 

But it was the John Lewis advert – yet again – that stole the show. So if you haven’t seen it, have a gander now – it’s worth it, I promise you.

John Lewis Christmas Advert – 2022

After watching it several times and getting that pesky bit of dust out of my eye with a tissue, I started to reflect on how stories can help us spread important messages. And why we simply have to use them in non-fiction to make our books better.

A brief history of storytelling

One hundred thousand years ago, we began to develop our language as humans – passing on information (and stories) via the spoken word. 27,000 years ago, we began sharing via cave paintings. 3500 years ago, we moved on to using text to share our knowledge, with the oldest printed book, The Diamond Sutra, being produced in China over 1000 years ago

So, as you can see, storytelling is very much a part of who we are and who we’ve evolved to be — passing on family stories from generation to generation, as well as traditional fairy tales, myths and legends from cultures and communities around the world. It’s helped to build connections and pass on advice and inspiration.

Even today, we experience stories daily, probably without even realising it. Advertisers – thanks, John Lewis – often use them to great effect because they know we’re hard-wired to respond and connect to them on an emotional level. 

So what is it that makes stories work so well?

Hold on to your hats, people; it’s about to get sciencey.

The science of storytelling

When we hear stories, hormones are released into our bodies from our endocrine glands, making us feel a certain way depending on what we hear and experience. 

According to David JP Phillips in his TED talk, The Magic Science of Storytelling, four hormones give us a particular emotional investment in the stories we see/hear – a DOSE of emotions if you like.

  • Dopamine – makes us focus, as well as motivates and inspires us

  • Oxytocin – stirring empathy, trust and generosity within us – that human connection to the story we’re experiencing

  • Seratonin – helps us learn and commit the story – and its lessons – to memory

  • Endorphins – again help with focus, but also make us more relaxed and often make us laugh

Through great storytelling, we can help our reader experience this wide range of emotions throughout our non-fiction books. And depending on the emotion we want our readers to feel, we can match our stories accordingly. 

You might think it sounds a bit ‘forced’ or manipulative, but that’s not the case. On the contrary, giving our readers this range of emotions makes their experience far more meaningful and will ensure they remember your book – and the knowledge you’re hoping to share – long after they’ve closed it. 

And that’s what we want – to make our books memorable. And stories are the way to do that. Indeed, Stanford School of Business research shows that, when listening to pitches, only 5% of the audience remembered statistics, whereas a whopping 63% remembered stories. 

How can you apply the science of storytelling to your non-fiction book?

So you’ve done the science bit, now comes the application bit. 

Stories will work in your non-fiction book because they:

  • Make your reader feel something – our decisions, our desire to change/transform/grow comes from our emotional state. Logic comes later. Use stories that make your reader have a strong emotional reaction – happiness, sadness, laughter etc.

  • Develop trust with your reader – show them you’ve been there or understand what they’re going through, even if you’re using other people’s stories to highlight your points. 

  • Build connection – your reader needs to feel you’re speaking directly to them – and only them. Use stories where they can see themselves as the hero/main character. 

  • Remind them that things can turn out okay in the end – even if your reader is at the start of their journey or stuck somewhere with no obvious way out; stories can highlight how, even when things seem hopeless, characters can – and do – prevail. Use stories that strongly reflect this journey.

  • Inspire your reader to take action – stories can motivate them to do things they’ve always dreamed of but haven’t had the confidence or courage to do. By seeing others achieving success through the stories you share, they’ll be raring to go!

  • Make your information more memorable – Bruner’s research showing 22x more memorable! All that knowledge you have needs to leave a lasting impression on your reader, and showcasing it through stories can do just that. Before and after case studies can work really well here.

  • Humanise your book – it’s not just facts and figures or strategies; it’s emotional and intriguing, as well as making things clearer. Use stories that keep your reader wondering how on earth things will end!

Ultimately, stories can help your book leave a lasting impression. An impression that can lead your reader to rave about your book to friends and family. Which in turn leads to more readers and yet more fans. 

It’s one of the reasons I use a story at the start of each chapter in Dare to Write – because I know how it can embed new knowledge and understanding for my reader. It also entertains them too!

The number of people who’ve contacted me about Goldie, my sister’s golden retriever, and her adventure in the Thames, continues to grow…

Should you use your story?

And finally, is your story worth telling? Do you bare your soul and share your journey? 

For me, it’s a resounding ‘yes!’ 

Nothing speaks to your reader more than your story. Of course, you only have to share as much as you feel comfortable, but you must share something. Other people’s stories are good, but your story trumps them all. 

Often it’s weaved into the introduction, laying out your stall, so to speak. But there’s no hard and fast rule. Wherever you feel it works best is often the most sensible strategy.

Nothing builds connection, trust and confidence more than sharing your story. It’ll only make your book stronger. 

I can’t wait to hear it. 

If you’d like support to weave stories into your non-fiction book, get in touch, and we can discuss how I can support you. 

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