You know that part of a good book or movie where your breath catches in your throat a little, and you have to know what happens next? 

Take the opening line of “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” There’s an instant spark of suspense; our chest tightens at the thought of a firing squad. We’re also filled with questions that make us turn the page.

The The same goes for your favourite movie. There’s always that moment, the one where you can feel the pressure rising at what will happen next—like when a character is hiding in a closet and can hear the footsteps of an intruder. Or are walking into a dark forest in dead silence.

What keeps your clients turning the page? 

Whether it’s a book, a movie, or your brand, all successful stories have moments of conflict, danger, or risk. These moments cause a release of our stress hormone called cortisol.  

Recently, we explored oxytocin, the trust hormone. This hormone fosters a feeling of trust, love, empathy, and nurturing. It allows our readers to connect with our stories and trust our brands. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have cortisol: Your body’s main stress hormone.

Yes, yes. Stress is the opposite of what you want your clients to feel when interacting with your business, right? Well, yeah. But also, no. Cortisol grabs our reader’s attention. Without it, we don’t finish reading a book. We lose interest in that movie that was so exciting a few moments ago.

In the end, creating conflict and overcoming it will make the release of oxytocin even more impactful. Think of the hero’s journey—we all want to see the main character (or in the case of your business comms: your ideal clients) overcome stressful obstacles and emerge triumphantly. 

So, what’s cortisol, anyway? 

When a person faces a stressful or frightening situation, the eyes and ears send the information to the amygdala. This is the part of your brain that controls emotional processing. If it perceives danger, it lets the hypothalamus know by sending a distress signal.

We talked about the hypothalamus in our discussion about oxytocin, but it basically communicates with the rest of your body through the autonomic nervous system. This system has two parts—the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When your hypothalamus gets the distress signal, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. So what happens then? Well, all the worrisome, walking-into-a-dead-silent-forest things.

Your heart starts beating faster, breathing quickens, blood pressure jumps, and your lungs take in as much oxygen as possible to increase your alertness.

In other words: Cortisol is a hormone that engages your fight-or-flight mode. 

Wait, I don’t want my clients to feel stressed. 

Increased alertness caused by cortisol is vital in successful storytelling. We want our readers to pay attention. We don’t want them to get halfway through our brand story and stop reading it like it’s a paperback that they “just couldn’t get into.” We want to grab their attention, so the all-important oxytocin can come along and form trust.

A recent study focused on how stories help hospitalized children. The study revealed that “storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol.” It looked at 81 hospitalized children in ICUs who all had similar respiratory conditions. One group of children listened to stories, while the other group played riddle games.

The results were tested using saliva samples, pain scale assessments, and association word quizzes. The study found that children who listened to stories experienced an increase in oxytocin twice as great as the children who played riddle games. Also, the story group was more likely to associate words such as “nurse” and “doctor” with positive emotions. Finally, the story group registered a decline in pain sensation at twice the rate of the riddle group.

Now, you’re probably thinking that these children were read happy children’s books with zero cortisol stimulants. And while children’s books are, from the adult perspective, happy and simple, they aren’t for children—even children’s stories have conflict.

Just think of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle – it’s a happy story, but the caterpillar has a problem—he’s hungry, and you want to know what he’s going to eat next. Or in “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, Max is having an adventure, but he’s also lost and far from home.

It only takes a little cortisol to gain your reader’s attention and maintain it. In the end, your successful brand story will leave your readers with decreased cortisol and positive associations with your brand.

Applying cortisol to brand communications 

So, now that we know we want a little cortisol, how do we use it?

First, take a look at the stories you’re telling. This could be your brand story, your LinkedIn posts, your newsletters, or any other component of your business communications. Is there a conflict or a problem you had to overcome while building, maintaining, or growing your business? Try to integrate this into your stories to hook your readers and keep them engaged.

A few ideas for business stories about overcoming a challenge: 

  1. How you decided you wanted to start your business
  2. Your path to starting your business (maybe it was more of a brambly trail than a path)
  3. How your team handled a recent problem
  4. How you learned to handle work-life balance as an entrepreneur
  5. One of your employee’s stories and how they’ve grown in their role

However, your brand voice brief is always tailored to your business and the platforms you use; the document is unique to your brand.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, don’t complicate it. Keep your stories short, concise, and to the point. The cortisol can come from one sentence such as, “I decided to leave my old career and start my business in the middle of the pandemic.” Instantly, you induced a little stress, and now we want to keep reading to find out how you overcame this challenge. Bring on the oxytocin.