Let's Keep it Simple

Wooden toys are great. They’re fun, engaging, and durable. They’re so simple they hardly ever break. Very little goes wrong with a wooden toy. Let’s apply this idea of simplicity to your brand storytelling so you too can be fun, engaging, and durable.

Kill Your Darlings

William Faulkner famously quipped, “In writing, you should kill all your darlings.” In other words, it’s important to know your story in its entirety, but then you should boil it down to its core. Document your history. Develop a full cast of characters from your team, your members, and those lives your association touches. Write it all down.

Next, eliminate complications and confusion that can dilute your message. Try to identify the top three things about your association that your membership absolutely must know. Faulkner’s dark language hints at how difficult this process is. There’s so much you love about your association, and you don’t want your members to miss one detail. But you must thin the herd for the greater good.

Simple, Focused Marketing

The best marketing efforts are simple and focused. Direct mail and email state key benefits and make one offer to one audience. Taglines summarize a brand in a handful of words. Postcards grab attention with concise headlines. Tell your audience too much and risk getting ignored altogether.

A Case for Simplicity

Take a nod from the recent explosion of viral vine videos. In just six seconds or less, a good vine conveys emotion, tells a story, makes a push, connects people, or represents an entire brand. Keep in mind, of course, that “simplicity” isn’t synonymous with “short.” You need powerful, concise stories to connect with your audience.

Another example is the 2012 movie The Artist. In a time when movie makers continuously up the ante with special effects, pyrotechnics, and computer enhancements, The Artist took the world by storm silently in black and white. This pared-back approach allowed audiences to focus more on the story and characters and less on visual effects. The truckload of awards the film won suggests simplicity has a place in our complex, cluttered world.

What about the Bells and Whistles?

Today’s storytelling technology offers more possibilities than ever to convey your story to your audience (and they are fabulous and you should use them). But even the best high tech, interactive promotions fall flat if they don’t have a strong, simple message at their core.

How might you use a “wooden toy” version of your brand to inspire your members?

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Go with your gut?

Emotions are essential to our decision-making process. But letting our hearts make big decisions about our homes, cars, and careers seems like it could be a dangerous thing. Is our gut instinct a good instinct?

According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our gut feelings, scientifically known as “somatic markers,” help us make decisions more efficiently. Following a hunch means we don’t need a lot of time to reason rationally. But is an impulsive decision a good one? Quite often, yes. Damasio’s research suggests that emotions trump logic when it comes to making decisions.

The brain is a complex creature

Our brains are a network of interrelated parts. It’s tough to have a decision based purely on emotion or purely on logic and reason. Psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn suggests we have a top brain and a bottom brain that work together. The top brain absorbs information from our environment and emotions. The bottom brain focuses on signals and senses, compares them to our memories, and considers the consequences of our decisions. Even our impulsive decisions, then, are based on some reasoning.

Your M.O.

Kosslyn suggests that the extent to which we are controlled by our top vs. bottom brain says a lot about us. He suggests that most people fall into one of four cognitive modes:

  1. Movers use both the top and bottom systems of the brain to plan and see the consequences of their actions.
  2. Perceivers use more bottom brain and often analyze and give context to a situation.
  3. Stimulators make elaborate plans without always considering consequences.
  4. Adaptors don’t favor top or bottom and often let the environment or others make decisions.

Knowing which mode seems like you is the first step to making sound decisions, suggests Kosslyn. Considering all four modes will help you as a marketer to better reach your audience. Perceivers, for example, might benefit from seeing a budget, reviewing a list of pros and cons, or receiving a detailed information packet. Movers are ready to be make impulsive emotional decisions. However, they will need some assurance from you that attending your event will result in benefits rather than consequences.

Kosslyn explains the complexity of decision making. Damasio’s research suggests emotions must play a role in the process. There is no magic formula that will address all the brains in your base.

But balancing emotion and reason seems like the way to go when guiding your audience toward your organization and events.

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Storytelling Success in 140 Characters

We know storytelling technology shapes and enhances the stories we tell. One of those technologies is Twitter. While it might seem impossible to tell a meaningful story in 140 characters or less, Twitter is an incredibly engaging platform that connects people-to each other and to the most talked-about topics of the day. Ignoring the storytelling potential of such a tool would be a mistake.

How to use Twitter as a Storytelling Device

First, it is possible to tell a story in just a few words. Jokes are some of the shortest, most memorable stories out there. Perhaps more appropriate for business settings, however, are taglines, compelling headlines, or concise introductions to longer bits of content you post elsewhere. You might be the character in the story, or you might be the narrator.

Of course, you’re not limited to just 140 characters. Use five or 10 tweets or more to get your story across. (A recent Twitter Fiction Festival showcased just how much storytelling is possible via the platform.) Tweet images and video to support your message. A picture, as they say, is worth way more than 140 characters. Candid snapshots or video testimonials from your annual conference can do some heavy lifting to generate buzz and boost attendance at future events.

What Others are Saying

The other side of Twitter is what your members are tweeting about you. While you can’t control the stories they tell, you can create situations that encourage storymaking and the resulting storytelling. This third party endorsement from happy members is priceless marketing.

And don’t forget that Twitter is a connectivity tool. There is no limit to the amount of content you can link to-blog posts, web sites, video content, other organizations, you name it-all available quickly, all keyword searchable. Find out what everyone is talking about, and get in on the conversation using hashtags and handles that link you to the bigger picture.

Make a Mosaic

Twitter as a storytelling format is something of a mosaic. Each tiny tweet works independently to tell your story.

When combined they create the bigger brand picture that makes your audience feel connected, inspired, and moved to action.

Remember that the brain is hardwired for storytelling. The question isn’t “How can I possibly tell a story in 140 characters?” It is “What story can I tell using 140 characters?”

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The stories your members tell themselves

Part of your job as storyteller and storymaker is to create meaningful connections with and among your base. A third type of story is the one your member tells himself based on a given set of ideas and information. Your job in this situation is to frame up your brand in a way that resonates with the beliefs your target audience already has. Then get out of the way while your member sells your brand to himself.

Tap Into Audience Worldview

Let’s take for example a pedometer. Nowadays, you have your pick of high-tech blue-tooth-enabled “fitness trackers.” You don’t buy one because the product itself will actually do anything for you (it does nothing). You buy one because you’ve told yourself a story that this $50+ gadget will help you move more, get fit, look sexier, and feel better. From there, you might speculate how your new body will help you make new friends, attract a mate, save money on medical expenses, get noticed for a promotion at work, or any number of benefits that will generally improve your life. The pedometer simply struck a chord with what you were already thinking, (perhaps through some high-energy branding, like this).

We humans are pretty stubborn. It’s hard to get us to change our minds about anything, even if what you’re selling seems like a great idea. Even if what we’re currently doing isn’t working. We’d rather settle for a known evil than an unknown anything. An ideal strategy, then, as marketers is to tap into what our audience already believes.

Your Organization is a Life-Enhancement Tool

Your association is the pedometer in the above example. It’s simply a tool that enables your members to improve their lives.

Your job as a marketer is to let your members make up their own story.

They don’t necessarily want to belong to your organization. They want career-advancing knowledge. They want to rub elbows with the “it” people in your industry. They want their bosses and coworkers to be impressed by their performance. They want to improve their lives and the lives of others.

Good storytelling is an effective marketing technique because you paint a vivid picture but leave the rest to your audience’s imagination. You let each member tell himself a story, which (no offense to your top-notch marketing efforts) is going to be so much more effective than anything you could possibly say.

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Circle Up

What’s the difference between storytelling and corporate communications?

Some of the earliest human stories were told around a campfire. We continue this tradition today with bon fires and camping trips. In one way, a campfire is a simple, quiet place to unplug from technology and connect with people by sharing stories and experiences. On a more literal level, it’s a circle. And, like the famous Round Table, it’s a circle with no head or foot, no leader who sits above others. Any individual can tell a story. Anyone in the circle can listen, engage, and return the volley of conversation.

The modern workplace also has campfires. We congregate around the water cooler or copy machine to chat, connect, and pause. We have roundtable discussions where attendee participation is essential to an in-depth, “well-rounded” look at the topic at hand. Many business decisions are made over coffee or a round of golf. These circular discussions lie in stark contrast to shareholder meetings, presentations, corporate memos, and other one-way communication methods where participation is limited to a Q & A at the end.

Storytelling is a conversation, not a presentation.

Bill Baker of BB&Co notes that storytelling in this roundtable fashion is characteristic of great leaders. Steve Jobs was famous for engaging his audiences through storytelling and collaboration-once going so far as to prank call a Starbucks with the 4000 people he was speaking to. Baker explains that storyteller leaders engage and empower others, are vulnerable, truthful, trustworthy, and strategic. Your association can be a storyteller leader, too.

To truly inspire others, we can’t communicate from the top down-from the head of the table, if you will.

This circle approach is what separates storytelling from corporate communications.

It encourages connectivity and storymaking, participation and feedback, and a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It could mean the difference between inspiring your base to action and missing attendance numbers this year.

What’s your association’s campfire? How will you fuel the fires of inspiration, conversation, and connectivity?

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Video Storytelling

People like visuals. By some estimates, photos get twice as many “likes” on Facebook as text links, and videos get shared 10 times as often as text. Video makes a great platform for storytelling. It’s visual, easy to grasp, and shareable. It brings your brand to life.

Don’t Forget Freytag

When it comes to using video for your storytelling, all the rules apply. Your video should have a clear beginning, middle, end with interesting characters, vivid details, tension, and a climax. Make the customer the hero. It’s easy when telling your brand story to make it all about you. Keep in mind your membership wants to know what’s in it for them.

Admirable Animation

Take a look at Wall and Chain, a recent video story from hospitality website Airbnb. The commercial recounts the tale of a WWII solider and the unique relationship he had with a soldier on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Airbnb released the spot to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The ad is touching, timely, and best of all true. Not to mention the story is an incredible coincidence (we should all be so lucky to uncover such an tale in our organization). It’s also very profound. In just over a minute, the animated spot addresses the long-lasting effects of war, the humanity and connectivity between two guards on opposite sides, and the power of family and travel.

Airbnb settled on a visual format to tell this important story, but they didn’t use video footage. Perhaps actual video wasn’t feasible. Or maybe they went wanted to convey some of the whimsy of travel or the fantastical nature of this heartwarming tale. Perhaps they wanted to take some of the edge off the harshness of war. Consider all possibilities for your brand story, from video testimonials to motion graphics. The big idea is to bring your story to life in a way your audience can’t ignore.

Storymaking and Storytelling

The Airbnb spot is a great example of the power of storymaking (insert LINK to Storymaking post) not just storytelling. The Airbnb brand made it possible for this incredible coincidence to occur, which led to the woman telling the story, which in turn led to the fabulous commercial we have today.

While you might not have such an incredible story of connection for your videos, you never know what you’ll uncover when you start digging in. Keep working to create spaces for stories to happen. Capture testimonials, feedback, and video footage if you can. Your membership will reward you with your own brand’s extraordinary tales of connection and inspiration.

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Storytelling Isn’t Enough

Telling your brand story is only part of your job as marketer. Another important endeavor is to create situations for your membership to also tell your story. This “storymaking” is an essential part of your brand’s success. It provides third party credibility through authentic, timely tales of member experiences. It also facilitates meaningful connections between members. Best of all storymaking creates connectivity between your members and your organization.

In a lot of ways, the stories your attendees tell are more powerful than the ones you intentionally produce, package, and promote.

You Make Stories Happen

Consider the current “Share a Coke” campaign featuring cans and bottles with names and relationships-like Michelle, Sarah, Bob, and also Soulmate, Buddy, Pal. The encouragement to share a Coke fosters human connectivity while simultaneously creating a connection with Coke.

The results of such a simple idea have been remarkable. Social media is filled with conversations about individuals who searched multiple grocery stores for their own names. Other tales tell of people seeking out friends and coworkers simply because they found their name on a can. Couples post “Soulmate” pictures with each other and the sentimental Coke can. It’s a win-win: meaningful connections between people and free, authentic advertising for Coke.

PetSmart enjoyed similar success with its Inspiration Wagin’ campaign. This summer the pet retailer loaded up a truck full of dogs and cats and toured the country handing out free promotional items and letting people play with the pets. The campaign enjoyed significant media coverage and more than 100,000 social media conversations.

For other examples of masterful storymakers, look to video camera company GoPro, online dating site eHarmony, or even Budweiser. Sports teams have been doing this for decades.

It’s not Enough to Tell Stories

Good marketing is a conversation. Yes, you need to carefully craft your stories as part of your brand’s image. But if no one is talking with you or about you, maybe no one is listening to you either.

Your job is to encourage conversation by creating engaging events, promotions, and initiatives.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable to the responses and feedback you get in return. The results might just be increased connectivity, happier members, and better brand awareness through genuine word-of-mouth marketing.

Your branding extends to everything your organization does-from your annual conference to your daily email communications. There are endless opportunities for storymaking. How might you inspire your members to tell your story?

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Make it New

Four strategies to inspire your base with original storytelling

According to author Christopher Booker, there have only ever been seven plot lines and we’ve heard them over and over again for thousands of years. How then it is possible to reach our members with a fresh, compelling story that engages and moves to action? This dilemma seems especially relevant given the onslaught of marketing messages that plague your audience daily (as many as 5,000 per day by some estimates).

Consider these strategies to craft original stories that get attention and encourage connectivity to your organization.

1. Exploit your available tools.

Storytelling tools have come a long way in 6000 years, and they continue to evolve rapidly today. Not only should you select the relevant format for your story; you should also allow your platform to influence what you say and how you say it.

2. Influence and be influenced by current events.

The current conversation surrounding your brand and your industry can guide future stores and even change how people view past stories. When Tony Morrison authored the book Beloved-a work of fiction that wove together real tales from American slavery-Morrison “reconceptualized history” according to some critics. Her work gave context and meaning to events that occurred over a hundred years before her book. Additionally, her book propelled a modern conversation about race in the U.S. Imagine how your stories might influence and change the conversation in your industry.

3. Be a masterful storyteller.

If we’re all using the same archetypes, then the power of our stories lies in how we tell them. What images represent your brand and no other? Which words best convey your organization’s mission and culture? How can you visually represent your brand in a way the reflects your story? Which tools are the best megaphones for your voice?

4. Be guided by your archetypes, not defined by them.

Think of your archetypes as mannequins you dress with a combination of the latest fashions and your brand’s personal style. The underlying shape is the same, but the outward expression is totally unique.

In the words of modernist poet Ezra Pound, “Make it new.” Take all that is great about our millennia-long storytelling tradition and give it life today. You will simultaneously harness universal structures of the past to connect with your audience and inspire them with the relevant conversations of today.

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The Technology of Storytelling
While our stories have mostly remained the same throughout history, the tools we use to tell them have changed dramatically.

Wall to Wall

“In 6,000 years of storytelling, people have gone from depicting hunting on cave walls to depicting Shakespeare on Facebook walls,” remarks digital artist Joe Sabia in a 2011 TED talk.

Sabia notes the invention of the pop-up book by Lothar Meggndorfer (yes, that’s his real name) in the 1800s as the first time the book as a format really evolved as a storytelling device. Sabia proceeds to explain that vaudeville evolved from opera, radio theater from radio news, and modern movies from silent films and still pictures. In recent history, our storytelling tools have become increasingly varied and increasingly high-tech.

The internet has evolved to include live chat, Twitter, professional video messaging like TED talks, amateur viral videos, quirky musical mash-ups, and more. Tablets have transformed books and magazines from static formats to interactive ones. There’s no telling what might be just around the corner to help us tell our stories faster, better, and to more people.

Tools Help Us Tell Better Stories

Format after format, storytellers (actors, marketers, politicians, teachers, parents, musicians, professionals, writers, artists, etc.) have risen to the occasion. Not only do we use a platform to tell our story; the platform itself influences how we tell it. Compare a Charlie Chaplin film to, say, Titanic.

Like never before, we’re able to infuse our stories with vivid imagery and animation, humor, artistry, and electricity that help us more fully convey the essence of who we are.

Because we have this incredible ability to show our true colors, people can connect with us more deeply.

To this end, we can pick and choose formats to suit our tales. We can also adjust how we tell those tales to make the most of a given format. A video can demonstrate to your membership the kind of experiences they might expect at your annual conference. Tweets provide live snapshots of attendee experiences. Traditional technology like letters and postcards generate buzz and boost your off-line credibility.

Maybe it’s true that all the stories have already been told. But certainly they haven’t all been told using today’s available technology. And who knows what might be available in just a few short years. How might a new outlet influence your brand story?

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