Novelty: The Storytelling Element Your Brain Craves

When I was a sophomore in high school, my entire physics class aced the quiz on hand-cranked electricity. That’s because the previous week, our eccentric teacher Captain Bob let me demonstrate the science by strapping two jumper cables to my eyelids and electrocuting myself in front of the entire class.

It was something the class had never seen before, so the lesson stuck in their minds.

It’s long been known that novelty helps us learn more effectively. But we didn’t know why until 15 years ago. That’s when two neuroscientists named Bunzeck and Düzel used fMRI technology to examine people’s brains as they saw novel images. The substantia nigra/ventral segmental area of the brain (SN/VTA)—which is closely linked to memory and learning—lit up.

Soon after, neuroscientists at UCLA also linked novelty and memory and learning. They found that our brains crave novelty.

Last week, I explored the first of the four elements of great storytelling: relatability. This week, we’re diving into novelty—one of the most important tools for anyone who wants to tell stories that stay with people.

Why we crave new stories

brain sees novelty

“We want to be like Red Bull.”

“We want to be like Amex.”

“We want to be like HubSpot.”

In my content strategy work with brands, many conversations start out with the well-intentioned desire to copy brands they admire. It makes sense. We want to adopt a “proven” approach. Plus, copying others is in our nature. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t make for very good content or storytelling.

If you want to break through, you need to introduce something novel—a new image, story, or idea.

Neuroscience research suggests novelty is so powerful because, in evolutionary terms, we pay attention to what’s new to determine whether it’s a threat. But Dr. Duzel’s research also suggests that novelty triggers the release of dopamine in the brain as a reward, encouraging us to find out more.

Encouraging people to learn more is also the goal of pretty much every piece of branded content ever created.

Michael Dubin, Novelty King

In December 2010, a young improv comic named Michael Dubin found himself at a Christmas party talking to one of his father’s friends. The conversation took an unexpected turn, and before long, the family friend was asking him for help selling 250,000 razors he had acquired from Asia. (We’ve all been there, right?) The conversation would have weirded a lot of people out, but it gave Dubin an idea. What if he started a service that would eliminate the expense and hassle of selling razor blades? What if they just showed up at your door every month for just $1?

The problem is that Dubin couldn’t get the funds to support his idea. So with his last $5,000, he made one of the weirdest, most novel brand videos you’ll ever see.

“Are our blades any good?” Dubin asks. “No, our blades are fucking great.”

The video is 90 seconds of absolute absurdity that somehow touts all of the features of Dollar Shave Club’s razors. There’s a toddler shaving a man’s head, polio jokes, a machete, a clumsy bear, a giant American flag, and perhaps the best “make it rain” scene of all time. All things the audience had likely never seen before.

The video went viral, triggered a flood of dopamine in people’s brains, and inspired them to want to learn more. Dollar Shave Club got 12,000 orders in the first 48 hours. The clip also convinced former Myspace CEO Michael Jones to sign on as Dubin’s partner. The company kept creating crazy new videos for every product release, shipped bathroom readers with every order, and started an outspoken men’s magazine, Mel.

In July 2016, Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club for a billion dollars, in large part due to the deep relationships the brand had built with its audience through content. That’s one hell of a return on a $5,000 video.

Novelty and your stories

The next time you’re writing a blog post, making a video, or preparing a presentation, ask yourself: Am I introducing something new into the world? New stories, new research, new ideas? Or is this something people can find 50 other places with a simple Google search?

If you read last week’s post on relatability, note that these two elements are interconnected. Relatability draws your audience in, then novelty holds their attention.

novelty and time

Trying something new may seem like a risk, but if you create truly novel content, your audience will be rewarded. As will you.

Image by iStockPhoto

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