Think back to some of the presentations you’ve seen recently. Do you remember the beautifully colour blended PowerPoint slide with the carefully thought out sliding graph? Or did the in-depth explanation of the software testing really grab you? The answer to both of those is probably no – if you think back to speeches and presentations, the ones you’ll remember are the ones where the presenter told you a story. Whether it was the origin story of the brand, a particular incident that highlighted a pain point or even a personal narrative that involved the presenter and the solution she’s talking about, that is what will have stuck. Why? Because as human beings we are hardwired to listen to stories.
Once upon a time…
Research has thrown up various explanations for why stories are so important to us. The Journal of Consumer Behaviour in 2020 published a paper showing that storytelling in radio advertisements produced more favourable emotional responses and had some effect on the participants’ intention to share information about the product, and this effect increased when the listeners were told that the speaker was the founder of the company. Similarly, in the ‘Significant Objects’ project, researchers auctioned junk on eBay with the item descriptions written as short stories by famous authors. The average cost of the items was $1.25 each, but adding the stories meant they sold for almost $8,000 in total. (The money was given to charity) The researchers felt that the stories imbued the items with a sense of significance and made them higher value.
Storytelling can be seen as a form of cognitive play. It allows us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies for success; what would we do in that situation? It encourages empathy as we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the person with the problem, and more empathy makes us better neighbours and community-members. Stories handed down through centuries and generations often feature the “baddie” as a tyrant, who tries to impose his will on a group of people with less power than him, and by working together, they overthrow him.
There is also the importance of the act of storytelling itself – a large group of people paying attention to one person who is making themselves vulnerable by standing up and sharing an experience. Being part of an audience listening to a story is a group activity which connects something primal inside us that we find soothing and engaging – the popularity of storytelling broadcasters like David Sedaris and The Moth Radio Hour indicates how much we need that.
Your branding story
In practical terms, what can you do? Include a narrative within your brand messaging framework that will appeal to the neurobiology of your listeners. X was the problem, we realised that what was happening was Y, we all used our different skill sets and empathy and realised that what was needed was Z. Use transcendent purpose rather than transactional purpose – how does this improve lives, rather than how much money will it save? That is a much more appealing and engaging story and has been proven to be retained in the memory for longer. Character-driven stories that show vulnerability and a ‘hero’ overcoming a problem to succeed are so much more satisfying to the listener than a list of facts and figures, however impressive they are.
Many comedians will post observers in the audience to see which jokes ‘land’ better than others, which attract more engagement and at which points the audience drifts off. Audience mapping is the same thing for brands – what parts of your story do people ‘get’ and which do they gloss over? Do the same thing with your brand and weed out those sections that don’t resonate. Your PR or brand agency will also be able to help you with messaging training, helping you to craft succinct but clear messaging with narrative content.
What’s your story?
Fundamentally stories follow the same pattern – the hero has a problem or encounters a villain, a blocker, that stops the hero being happy. The hero meets a guide who gives them a plan, calls them into an action and that ends in success. So what storytelling means for your brand is your customer is the hero, the villain or blocker is the problem they encounter, you or your product or service is the guide, you tell them what to do (“buy it!”) and your customer lives happily ever after.
When you struggle to explain what you offer in clear, simple terms, you risk not being able to have your business differentiate from every other in your industry. By learning lessons from fairy tales and the power of brand storytelling you can shape your own narrative.