“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”-attributed both to Plato and Hopi Native Americans
Storytelling is a craft as old as humankind. It long predates the written word as a form of communication, a way to record history, and a method for teaching. It links us to our ancestors and to each other. Despite its name, storytelling is an interactive communication form in which we SHOW others something important by illustrating a scenario, rather than simply TELLING them facts and figures we think they should know. The results of good stories are “sticky” lessons and information that strike us with awe, stay with us, and move us to action.
Why it Works
At its core, storytelling works as a marketing tool because of the way our brains are wired.
It turns out that the part of the brain that processes emotions is the same part that makes decisions-that’s the limbic system. While it seems counterintuitive, appealing to your audience with facts, figures, and other generally credible and logical information is not enough to really “sell” them on your association or your event. You absolutely must appeal to emotions if you want to propel your base toward action. Engage your membership emotionally with brand storytelling and watch how many seats fill up at your next event.
What is Storytelling?
A story has characters. It has conflict and color. A vivid setting. Tension. A plot twist. It involves looking audience members in the eye and saying, “Have you ever?” or “Do you know what I mean?” And they wait on the edges of their seats for these brilliant details, twists and turns, points of connection, climaxes, and resolutions. A story can be as simple as a joke or as complex as an epic tale. Ultimately, a story has an ending-one that leaves us laughing, crying, smarter, wiser, or filled with wonder. Stories are memorable. Some, unforgettable.
Know Your Archetypes
One reason storytelling is timeless is that basically we keep telling the same stories over and over again. We’re accustomed to tales of good vs. evil, creation, humans vs. monsters, a hero on a journey, and lots of other familiar plot lines. These classic storylines are called archetypes. They serve as frames upon which we can hang a given cast of characters and send them along more or less the same path with the same outcome as many characters who came before them.
Consider these textbook examples of stories that employ archetypes:
- “The Chronicles of Narnia” books by C.S. Lewis are a fantastical retelling of Christian biblical stories using talking animals. They contain a creation story, a hero’s journey, monsters, villains, and more classic archetypes.
- The movie “Apocalypse Now” is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s book “The Heart of Darkness,” set during the Vietnam war rather than during the Imperialist expansion into Africa of the late 1800s. Archetypes employed include the hero’s journey, the everyman, and good vs. evil.
- The “Star Wars” movies are a classic example of the battle between good and evil, just like Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” from 1667.
- Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and Shrek movies 1 though 4 all use the hero’s journey archetype.
Characters themselves can also be archetypes. In fact, your brand likely fits a character archetype that you can use to your advantage. (We’ve talked before about the patriarch, the advocate, and the caregiver.) A few more examples of character archetypes include:
the hero: Indiana Jones, The Lone Ranger, Katniss Everdeen
the everyman: Mr. Smith (the one who goes to Washington), Orphan Annie, Frodo Baggins
the villain: Lex Luthor, Voldimort, Wicked Witch of the West, Hanibal Lecter
the creator: Steve Jobs, Victor Frankenstein, Pinocchio’s Geppetto
the jester: The Fool in Hamlet, Dori in Finding Nemo, any role played by Jim Carey
They help us as brand storytellers know what kinds of stories to tell, what tone to take, and what kind of words to use. Similarly, they help our audience connect with us on a deeper level because, in a sense, our story is already familiar to them.
How Does Storytelling fit into Marketing?
As marketers, we strive to connect with our audiences in meaningful ways. We tap them on the shoulder and say
Too often, we recite information-facts, dates, keynote speaker names, panel topics-that we want our audience to know. (As a test, take a look at your web content. How many times do you use the word “we” vs. the word “you.”)
A better approach is one of storytelling, of relating vivid details of real human beings, their successes and failures. Good storytelling is an authentic exchange of conversation, emotions, and key information, always keeping the needs of your audience in mind. This is both and art and a science. It’s also a soft sell. Once they’re fully engaged and struck with awe and wonder, your audience will come to you on their own because they’re educated, informed, and connected.
Storytelling vs. Strategic Storytelling
Bill Baker of BB&Co eloquently makes a distinction between storytelling and strategic storytelling. He notes that storytelling generally involves a company or organization spilling out whatever it wants to brag about. Strategic storytelling, on the other hand, is savvy marketing that relates to your audience on a one-on-one level and “establishes context and relevance for your message.” (View his entire article here).
According to Baker, strategic storytelling can “shape the way people think, focus their understanding, and compel them towards desired actions.”
Where to Start
Customer testimonials are a type of story, but standing alone these don’t do all the heavy lifting to actually tell your story. Collect these and other attendee experiences, employee anecdotes, case studies, and company history.
Often, the reason why your association was founded, a hurdle overcome, or a problem you’re still solving make excellent, compelling stories. Consider also your audience, what they need to hear, and problems you can help them solve. Choosing an archetype that represents your brand will also help you determine what kinds of stories to gather and how to tell them.
Engage your audience emotionally by including bits of your story in emails, postcards, your website, events, and in your face-to-face interactions. Then stand back and watch as this interactive, collaborative approach fills seats, attracts new members, and builds long-term loyalty.
While storytelling, ancient archetypes, and emotions might seem very subjective and nebulous when it comes to measuring effectiveness, it turns out there’s some pretty concrete science behind all this connection and emotion.
JoAnn Sciarrino, a researcher and the Knight Chair in Digital Advertising and Marketing at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, developed a way to measure brand engagement by analyzing social media conversations.
By looking at the words people used in association with a given brand, a.k.a. the stories being told, Sciarrino was able to determine to what extent people were emotionally attached to the brand.
Sciarrino reminds us that emotion resides in the limbic part of our brain, the same part of the brain where 90% of our decisions are made. A neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio first discovered the connection between emotions and decision-making when he studied people with damage to the limbic brain. While they basically seemed normal aside from experiencing no emotions, Damasio’s subjects had difficulty making even simple decisions-such as whether to have chicken or turkey for lunch. Damasio’s research suggests that human beings depend on emotion to make decisions. All this science tells us that we can’t ignore emotion when it comes to connecting with our base. If we want people to take action by joining our ranks and attending our annual events, we must create an emotional connection with our brand. And storytelling is a proven, measurable way to do so.
People Relate to People
The fundamentals of storytelling, much like the pirate’s code, are more like guidelines than actual rules. Not all stories have a villain, a love story, a journey, or even a happy ending. But all good stories are “true” in the sense that they are authentic. All good stories evoke a sense of wonder and connection. Storytelling works because people relate to other people, and they connect with brands primarily on an emotional level. The end goal of storytelling is timeless inspiration. And while that might sound like a lofty goal, it’s certainly an attainable one. What’s your brand story? How might you use it to inspire your base?
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