“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
As someone passionate about the power storytelling, this quote from literary scholar Jonathan Gotschall really resonates with me. Our ability to communicate using complex language and narratives is part of what sets humans apart from other animals. And, as Gotschall alludes, creating stories and relaying them to others is an integral part of who we are.
In our personal lives, a story can make or break a friendship or relationship, cause rifts or heal wounds. In business, they can lead us to make decisions, sever ties or form new partnerships. Stories are everywhere, and the more we learn to tell them properly and listen to them carefully, the more we can use them to our advantage.
To mark National Storytelling Week, I wanted to tell my own tale of how storytelling has influenced me and why I believe it’s integral to exceptional brand performance.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Prologue: The traits of a good storyteller
Anybody can tell a tale – I have learned that through the people I met during school, my degree and in my working life. It’s as simple as reading words aloud or following a script. Everyone can be taught to tell a story, just like anyone can be taught to paint. Many of the classic painters throughout history were taught universally accepted, formulaic techniques before they could produce great works.
However, when the likes of Michelangelo, Botticelli and Caravaggio came along, they stood out because their art showed something more than just a great formula: it showed passion, truth and authenticity. Caravaggio himself had a colorful palette to draw from – his life embroiled in murder and shrouded by mystery and intrigue.
Good storytellers also succeed because of this same special passion and truth. People who tell stories that are personal, from the heart or have a relatable edge, are those who will engage their audiences for longer and make sure their stories are heard and remembered.
We can see, hear and feel this sincerity – no matter whether we’re watching a Cameron Crowe film that reminds us what it’s like to be a teenager again, listening to a Nick Cave album and being cast away to another time and place, or reading an article about how a company’s philanthropic efforts are changing lives.
Good storytelling really can be translated into business. Many of my colleagues are great raconteurs and are respected in our company and the wider industry for their ability to bring what they say to life through personal touches, a sense of truth and the characters or situations they describe.
Character building: the human element of brand stories
So, what does this have to do with brand performance? The simple answer is humanization. Every brand is ultimately trying to sell itself, or what it offers, to people. And the only way that a true bond can be formed between consumer and brand is if that brand is relatable to those it’s seeking to engage with.
A good story will convey messages in a way that slide decks, factual statements and numbers can’t. In business, many B2B brands get preoccupied with technical detail and data. But while facts and information have value, they might not result in content that people remember. To communicate in business we need to do more than appeal to the logical side of the brain – we must find stories that audiences can connect to on a human level.
There’s a reason that we laugh at stand-up comics – it’s because they tell stories and talk about scenarios we can relate to. That awkward encounter at a party, or something excruciating a family member always does at Christmas.
The same is true for brands. When a team takes a brand to market, they should look to tell a story – one that will resonate with its audience and one that will make it memorable. If they can relay a message which says ‘hey, we know what it’s like to deal with this and this is how we can help you with that’, then it’s much more likely to tune into the audience’s psyche and form a meaningful and lasting connection.
Plot twist: the importance of data
As with every great story, the key to brand storytelling success is having the right elements.
Character, mood, setting, timing: it all counts towards whether it will be a page-turner or sit on the shelf gathering dust. For brands, finding the right stories to tell relies on having the right information from which to build on. That’s where data comes in.
Data helps us to form a picture of what people need and how we can respond to it. The better the quality the data is, the clearer this picture is – and the more engaging and relevant the message we deliver can be.
Again, the human element is crucial. Brands need to think about their audiences as what they are: people, not just numbers, groups or businesses. What stories are going to intrigue them? What messages will get them asking questions, telling their friends, get them wanting more? The way to determine this is by ensuring you have clean, high-quality and actionable data insights that paint an accurate picture of your audience, and help you to weave the right narrative to engage them.
Epilogue: the neverending story
The stories we remember are those we never want to end. That feeling of excitement in starting the next chapter; the thrill of trying to work out what the ending might be; the sense of loss when the story is complete.
Brands need to try and match this with their own storytelling – leave the audience wanting more and ensuring that the story they tell with each of their audiences is only just beginning.