You may think that the only people who need to read this book, and therefore this review, are writers, but you would be wrong. For, as my father (and many others before him and since) said, “clear writing is just clear thinking” and Lisa Cron’s Story or Die is really a book about thinking – how we do it, how we think we do it, how we don’t do it, and how you can be efficient when you are trying to get people to think about a thing you want them to think about (you know, like in advertising. Or life).

Cron digs deep into neuroscience in this, her third book (her first Wired for Story, we reviewed here, and interviewed her about here) and the information she brings back will undoubtedly alter the way you think about communicating in general.

Let’s start with what she says about your brain: that it is really two brains. One part very quickly sifts through the zillions of pieces of information that we’re flooded with every day – 11 million bits of data per second resulting in 35,000 choices a day. This “brain” makes decisions about this data – what to ignore, what to not – almost faster than you know they’re happening. Because it has to. If it didn’t, if you actually cogitated over every one of them, not only would you be completely paralyzed by the sheer volume of workload (35,000 decisions a day works out to over 1,400 an hour or 24 a minute or one every two seconds – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year), but your body would shut down simply because of the amount of energy thinking about this stuff would drain from your vital organs. Yes, really. This is the gatekeeper, and nothing gets to the “second” brain without its approval.

That part is what we would more colloquially call the “thinking” part, the part that ruminates and forms opinions and decisions and beliefs.

Which is where story comes in. And while we like to think that “story” is the sole purview of novels and movies and tv shows, in fact, it’s the fundamental way our brain processes information. For story – or narrative – is the way we view our own lives. We see ourselves as the main character in the “story” we’re living. “I was born here, I went to school there, I had lunch, I met a friend, I cut my finger…” The organizing principle in our brains is narrative, not a spreadsheet or a chart or a table. As a result, information that is presented to us in story form emulates the way our brain is already processing – and therefore has a better chance of resonating.

But there’s more. Because it turns out that when you communicate via story, the listener actually experiences the information as if they were living it. Or as Cron writes:

Numerous fMRI studies have shown that when you’re lost in a story the same areas of your brain light up as would activate if you were doing what the protagonist is doing. You really are there, experiencing it as if it were happening to you. By allowing you to vicariously live through the actual boots-on-the-ground effect facts have in real life, stories inspire change in a way that the facts alone cannot.

Story allows the listener to “live” the information. And charts and graphs and data? Without a story pulling them together, they’re just “telling” people what you learned. Which is less effective. How much less?

As behavioural scientist Dr. Jennifer Aaker points out, we are twenty-two times more likely to remember something we learned in a story over something someone explained to us.

So yeah, a lot.

There’s much more, but I want to stop there for two reasons. First, because you should really buy Story or Die and dig out the rest of the valuable information for yourself. And second, because I want to explain why even the little I’ve already parsed is so valuable to people in advertising and marketing.

Let’s start with creative. Because they are paid to figure out ways to efficiently convince people, understanding how people process information and what obstacles you’re up against as they do so is valuable, both in terms of what’s the most efficient way to get them to pay attention (past the first brain), and how to get them to hold on to that information (the second brain).

But Story or Die is also really useful to clients. First, to help them understand the value of those “softer” things that smart agencies try to put into advertising (like story) that aren’t as quantifiable as feeds and speeds. But also to help them think about their own customers’ behaviour differently. For if you understand that customers also perceive everything through story (because they’re humans too), then the way you look at their shopper/customer journey/retail experience has to change as well. Or it does if you want to make their journey to your brand a part of their story.

And because it’s important there, it’s also therefore important for strategists – on both the agency and client sides of the table. Because they need to rethink how to decode and craft that journey – as well as the brand – from something purely functional into a story that the creatives will bring to life, to make it really resonate with customers.

All of which needs to be put into a presentation to the client that will convince them that all these stories are really going to work. A presentation not built on data, but on, wait for it, story. Because not only are clients humans too, but because:

No matter how much info, how much data, how many facts are thrown at us, our brain is still going to translate them into story to figure out what they mean, and if we should care.

And that’s important, because as you know: the facts don’t lie.


Story or Die by Lisa Cron was published by Ten Speed Press on 03/02/2021 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read:

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath