As we all know, brands want to engage with their audiences and often we’re told that one of the most effective ways of doing this is through storytelling. But what does this mean in practice - and why is it important?
First, the science bit: research has shown that being told a story activates neurological sensory regions in the human brain, which are not triggered if we’re simply told facts and figures. In other words, stories trigger an emotional response and when evaluating brands, consumers apparently primarily use emotion (personal feelings and experiences) rather than straight-up information to make decisions.
Brands however, often lose sight of this in the quest to get across ‘company messages’ which unfortunately are usually only of interest to the business founders or stakeholders, not the wider public. As a journalist contact succinctly put it to me once: ‘I wish brand representatives would stop telling me their company exists and instead tell me what the story is’. So what is the story and how do we uncover it? A good starting point is to try some of the following techniques - they may sound quite simple but it’s amazing how many brands and agencies don't put enough energy and focus on these crucial elements.
Consider the world beyond the brand
Any brand should not be seen in isolation and to create a compelling story, context and an understanding of relevant issues and trends plus key market players and competitors is critical. I previously worked with a co-working space client – they provided a very nice service, but so did the other 1000-odd similar companies in London. We had to find a point of difference and while discussing possible angles with the client, they mentioned that the space was being used by both big business and startups, looking to collaborate with one another. At the time this was a fairly new concept (co-working spaces were generally seen as startup hubs only). The client resisted the idea as a potential story, worried the association with larger companies would make them seem less startup-focused and on-trend. We did some persuading. The story was then picked up by the Financial Times for a double feature, positioning the company as innovative and helping to shape their narrative as a collaborative, inclusive space with something new to offer.
Become a better listener
Marketers and comms people are great at talking; it’s part of the job. Developing advanced listening skills is the basis of every good story and storyteller. The more conversations you have and people you speak to within an organisation the more chance you have of understanding its narrative and maybe even uncovering some hidden gems. You’ll also hopefully speak to some people with strong opinions and interesting stories to tell that may spark an idea. To take the previous example of the coworking client, listening before communicating helped us get to a point where we had a strong story, even if it wasn’t something the client immediately recognised as a selling point.
Give something back to the audience
Some of the best stories aren’t just about telling but instead are about adding value to people’s lives: what benefit can the brand offer them, what advice can it give? If a company has made mistakes and learned things along the way, why not talk about that too- perfection is boring, the ‘how’ is often far more interesting than the ‘now’.
When we were working with a self publishing startup, some of the most compelling consumer-focused content we produced was focused on giving people tips on how to start their own writing career while still holding down a day-job: one of the most common issues for budding authors. Facts and figures about the company were all well and good but these advice focused pieces, complete with anecdotes from published writers on how they made it, were certainly the ones that received the most engagement and media coverage, including features in The Evening Standard and Refinery29.
"Everything went well and nothing out of the ordinary happened, the end" - went no compelling story ever.
Often brands have a tendency to play it safe and look inwards, becoming caught up with internal opinion and keeping stakeholders happy, which generally results in narratives becoming watered down and bland. To tell great stories though, companies need to be encouraged to share actual opinions, go outside their comfort zone, take risks and be brave. As the above examples show, compelling stories don’t have to be complicated, but they do need to have an outward view, considering wider trends and providing insight and value to audiences – it may take a bit more time and effort to get there but the rewards and results will speak for themselves.