5 Questions With HeyHuman’s Aoife McGuinness and Neil Davidson



Explore the neuroscience of storytelling with Aoife and Neil on 1 November during #SMWLDN!


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In a crowded landscape of fake news, junk content, and brands with manufactured purposes and stories, the craft of storytelling can often feel obscured. What is really going on in our brains when we connect through stories? What matters, and why, now and in the future?

On Friday, 1 November, during #SMWLDN, two representatives from HeyHuman, Managing Director, Neil Davidson, and Aoife McGuinness, Neuroscience Consultant, will unpack this question.

Ahead of their session, we sat down to ask them about the ‘human’ qualities brands should look to emulate, the biggest challenge in developing a neuroscience-focused approach to storytelling, how neuroscience can be employed to develop content differently in brand, social and experiential communications, and more.

SMW: What does it mean for a brand to be ‘human?’ What human qualities should brands adopt/which qualities does it make sense to emulate?

HH: For us, a human brand is one that understands brand relationships have changed and that people now think and behave differently. The notion of human brands was, obviously, the thinking behind our name and before launch, we conducted research into brands that display more connective behaviors and use these to drive their success in connecting with people. We discovered 14 brand relationships that people now wanted, rather than the old types of relationships brands still assumed, e.g. EasyJet is a good example of a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship versus legacy airline brands such as British Airways. The most important human behaviors for brands to adopt are active listening, simplification, and empathy.

SMW: What has been the biggest challenge in developing a neuroscience-focused approach to storytelling?

HH: The biggest challenge in developing a neuroscience-focused approach to storytelling is narrowing the focus. The term ‘storytelling’ itself is used very loosely and the existing body of research is vast, spanning across a variety of disciplines. It was important for us to be concise and concentrate on what we believe to be most valuable for brands – insights that people can apply to their work straight away.

SMW: The stories we tell have the ability to either fuel positive impact or serve as a detriment to our wellbeing. Do you believe brands have a responsibility to reverse the trend of information overflow including fake news and divisive content?

HH: We have been actively voicing our concerns over the abundance of messaging and the poverty of attention since we started as an agency. In fact, we spoke about the topic this year at SXSW during our talk ‘Advertising Detox: How to Reduce Cognitive Load.’

One of the reasons we are so passionate about measuring how people process content is precisely because of this information overload. We use EEG to record people’s brain activity and one of the metrics we look at is cognitive load, which is the amount of mental effort used in working memory. We found that the content with the highest cognitive load had the lowest recall, suggesting that memory encoding is less effective when our brains are maxed. However it’s not just the quantity of information, but the complexity too.

Simplification is important but not to the nth degree – it’s important to hit that sweet spot – too easy isn’t good either. That said, one could argue that the Trump and Brexit campaign both triumphed in their simplicity – but it was the emotiveness that mattered most – an essential part of storytelling.

SMW: In your perspective, how can neuroscience be employed to develop content differently in brand, social and experiential communications? What is its most important role in the craft of storytelling?

HH: The value of neuroscience testing lies in its ability to understand what really connects with people. One of our favorite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw is, “the biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.”

Time and time again, it has been shown that traditional research methods are often flawed, with limitations and biases skewing results. What people say and what they think is often misaligned and neuroscience testing helps us access a more accurate response. It allows us to test new creative concepts before going to market – to take greater creative risks with innovative content. Often brands are scared to go against the grain – neuroscience testing provides a degree of objectivity that makes these decisions easier.

SMW: What are some key examples of brands tapping into human behavior to better connect with consumers through stories?

HH: Spotify’s outdoor campaign was quite clever, humanizing their platform by revealing quirky insights from users’ listening behavior. “Dear person who played “Sorry” 42 times on Valentine’s Day, What did you do?” and “Dear 2,749 people who streamed “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” the day of the Brexit vote, Hang in there.”

Patagonia is a master storyteller, but what makes their narrative so compelling is that they actually walk the talk. Unlike other brands encouraging people to buy the latest look, they celebrated the longevity of worn-out clothes in a 30-minute film called Worn Wear, telling the stories behind the clothes. Then last year, they donated the $10 million they saved from Trump’s tax cuts to environmental – their stories feel authentic because the company actually is – and that resonates with people hugely.

Don’t miss your chance to explore the neuroscience of storytelling with Aoife and Neil at #SMWLDN (31 Oct – 1 Nov). Claim your pass by 9 August to take advantage of our early-bird rate before it expires.

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