“The golden key to more effective marketing: skillful storytelling.”

We all have that one friend. You know, the one who turns even the most mind-numbing story (laundry day, or a trip to the grocery store, for example) into a humorous, memorable saga. That friend takes you on a journey— they know how to build suspense. Where to pepper in the punchlines. How to keep you captivated. And, according to Forbes, that friend may hold the golden key to more effective marketing: skillful storytelling. 

We’ve written about the importance of brand storytelling before. But how else can you use stories to connect with your employees and customers alike? According to Noah Zandan, the CEO and co-founder of Quantified Communications, every memo, email, and report that comes across your desk has storytelling potential. Whether you’re writing up the notes from your last staff meeting, or sending out an update for your stakeholders, adding a bit of narrative flair will make the facts and stats up to 22 times more memorable.

“Stories need to be the backbone of your company’s personality.”

You might be asking yourself how you can take something as simple as an inter-departmental email and give it the flair of a New York Times bestseller. If that’s the case, consider thinking smaller.

“Your annual investor day may not be feature film material, and your sustainability report may not be the next Great American Novel,” Zandan writes. “But if you wrap your results into short narratives introducing the people behind the initiatives and detailing the efforts that led to your successes (or shortcomings), your audience will be able to visualize those initiatives and efforts themselves.”

Visualization is critical, especially when you’re discussing things like abstractions, numbers, and analysis. Professor Jennifer A. McCabe’s research shows that stories work as mnemonic— or memory— devices because they organize abstract materials into a meaningful structure. Humans retain sensory information: things we can see, hear, feel, smell, and touch. Stories give us a way to connect our senses with something we would otherwise only be able to imagine.

If you want to be memorable, boost employee morale, and inspire customer loyalty, stories need to be the backbone of your company’s personality.

But what is a story?

According to Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace, authors of  Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, “Story, like art and music, is a word you think you understand until you try to define it.” Though most of us have fond memories of childhood bedtime stories, or the family legends told time and time again around a dinner table, we’re less familiar with the mechanics of setting, characters, and narrative arc.

So what makes a story? Dr. David Aaker recommends that marketing objectives should get back to the basics: “A signature story is a “once upon a time” narrative. It describes an event, or an experience, or a process, and it has embedded in it the potential of having emotion and attention – and surprise and interesting characters.”

In other words, stories need to have recognizable, relatable characters in easy-to-visual settings who overcome challenges. Compelling stories build tension and lead to a turning point that results in growth or resolution.

Consider the following examples:

  • Each year, millions of Americans are impacted by hunger and food insecurity. 1 in 6 children doesn’t know where they’ll get their next meal. Northerly is answering the call to action by donating to local food banks. We’re here to combat hunger and feed the world.
  • Growing up on his family farm in Saskatchewan, Clayton Wolfe, the CEO of Northerly, always knew there would be a warm bowl of rolled oats on the breakfast table. During those early mornings, rising before the sun to help his dad tend the grain fields, he discovered his passion for farming was rooted in wanting to feed the world. Now, armed with his innovative John Deeres and the latest advances in agricultural tech, he’s made it his mission to give back. Northerly’s donation program wants to feed each of the 1 in 6 children who don’t know where their next meal is coming. With your help, children facing food insecurity can rely on a warm bowl of rolled oats to get them through the day.

While both of these texts address hunger in America and introduce a give-back program, the second one paints a picture. It gives the reader a character to connect with. The second example also engages the reader’s senses so they can feel those early mornings and practically taste the oats.

What makes storytelling so effective?

Early on, human societies had to learn to share information to survive. Which plants were poisonous? Where was the closest water? When was the perfect time to plant or harvest? Did these ancient societies rely on charts and graphs to document their successes and failures? No. They told stories. We know that stories convey the culture, history, and values of a society.

And according to researchers, they actually rewire our brains and impact the way we process information. Strong storytelling resonates with our emotions and opens us up to empathy and connection.

Stories connect with our emotions

Think about your favorite movie. Whether you laugh, cry, or white-knuckle the arms of your chair, there’s a good chance the story makes you feel something. Storytelling is a fundamental human experience that helps us create connections and relate to one another in today’s complex, modern society.

Plus, as experiments like the Significant Objects Project have shown, we value things we can connect to emotionally through stories. In 2009, the researchers behind the project hypothesized that people would pay more for actual junk if they connected that junk with a compelling story. For their first “volume,” they purchased $128.74 worth of items from thrift stores and paired each item with a creative writer. After giving each item a fictional story (written in any style or voice), that same junk sold via eBay for $3,612.51.

“The writers didn’t claim to have the highest quality flannel balls and candle holders…”

Value didn’t increase because the writers claimed they had the newest, flashiest, highest-quality flannel balls and candle holders. Instead, the writers gave each object a story; something the buyers could connect with emotionally. The site’s founders, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, claim, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” We can see the impact of stories on relatively worthless bits and baubles. Imagine the impact they’ll have on your products and services.

Keep in mind that not every story needs to be a heartfelt tear-jerker to be impactful. In fact, overemphasizing that particular mode of storytelling may hurt your brand’s overall success. Realistically, it takes multifaceted stories to reach the biggest audience. There’s a whole range of emotions. The stories you tell should strike as many notes as possible.

Stories build empathy and connection

Empathy is our ability to relate to one another— to experience what another person feels, or to “walk in another’s shoes,” so to speak. It relies on emotional connections. Essentially, empathy is the antithesis to formulaic, manipulative marketing. It requires brands to support and believe in human-to-human, rather than just company-to-consumer, connection.

And, according to Psychology Today, stories play an important role in building empathy and creating these connections. Research shows that reading fiction lights up the same brain networks as real, lived experiences. So, when you tell a compelling story about how your product or service improves lives, the reader’s brain experiences that story as if they are using your product or service.

Reading stories also plays a vital role in what psychologists call Theory of Mind (ToM for short).

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind refers to “the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.” In other words, ToM helps us differentiate between ourselves and others.

According to Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, reading fiction improves an individual’s ability to understand what other people are doing, thinking, and feeling. Mar explained that when we engage with a story, our brains automatically put us in the character’s shoes. We’re able to experience the world through new perspectives.

Empathy in marketing: Empathy allows brands and marketing firms to build an emotional connection with their audience.

Forbes contributor Rebecca Vogels writes, “Empathy allows brands and marketing firms to build an emotional connection with their audience, to engage the people who use their products in real conversations and to inspire connection.” And today’s consumers crave connection. The Harvard Business Review found that emotionally-connected customers are more loyal and spend more than other customers.

Vogels re-emphasizes this point, claiming, “Even something as small as, ‘this brand understands my lifestyle,’ or ‘this brand understands how I consume media’ can begin a relationship, and a relationship with a brand means a customer is likely not just to buy from that brand but to return to them repeatedly.”

Storytelling shows what you do, not just what you sell.

Again, would you rather read a chart outlining the specs and energy-saving potential of solar panels? Or would you prefer a colorful, engaging account of how solar panels changed an elderly homeowner’s life when she was struggling to pay her rising electric bill? Stories allow you to get beyond what you sell, and explain the where, why, what, and how of your business.

This is particularly important when considering that today’s consumers are more likely to support companies they view as sustainable, ethical, socially responsible, and making a positive impact in the world. A 2017 Forbes report outlines the four major qualities that millennials look for in companies:

  • They want companies to actively invest in the betterment of society and the solution of social problems.
  • Consumers want companies that prioritize “making an impact” on the world around them.
  • They want companies to be open and honest about their efforts — and to be public about their pro-social initiatives.
  • Finally, millennials want companies to involve their customers in their good works. They want an opportunity to give back — whether it’s with a gift of their time or their money.

What better way to show this growing group of consumers what your company does than through storytelling?

Stories also help employees connect with company missions

Remember, we’re not just talking about the potential for stories to connect brands with customers. Jackie Biederman of Conscious Company believes stories also play a crucial role in creating strong employee-consumer relationships.

“I spent part of my career in management at a Fortune 500 medical device company.” she writes. “But annually, we’d have an event where employees would hear stories from patients themselves. This is where real connection happened…. After these meetings, the mood within the company changed. Employees felt valued by seeing how our work and long hours made an impact on real people.”

It’s true. Today’s consumers want companies to prove how their efforts impact the world. They’re more likely to connect with your mission than your product. But the same can be said of today’s workers. A 2017 report found that 68% of millennials want to make a positive difference in the world, 81% said a successful business needs to have a genuine purpose and more than one-third define success as positively impacting society.

By ensuring your brand and marketing tells customer stories, or better yet, giving customers a platform to tell their stories themselves, you’re giving your employees the purposeful connection they crave in their careers. This particular type of storytelling helps your employees rally around your company’s common cause.   

Your company has a unique story to tell, and telling it well will help you stand out

Every day, millions of brands are vying for your customers’ attention.  And they all have a story to tell. But only you have your story to tell. All of this goes to show that storytelling is no longer optional— it needs to be the backbone of every meaningful communication. Untold stories are missed opportunities for marketing firms to build lasting, authentic connections with employees and customers. Instead of consumers, you’ll cultivate a community that’s as invested in your success as you are. Remember, not every story is about branding, but every story told needs to support your brand voice.