Why storytelling is more than a buzzword

‘Brand storytelling’ is on-trend. It’s become a bit of a buzz phrase.

But when brands do storytelling well, it can be a powerful way for a brand to communicate with its audience.

Many brands start with storytelling by drafting a few paragraphs for the website on the brand’s origin story. Some also publish origin stories for their products or services, but a lot of these can boil down to “Mary needed money to pay her bills and decided to sell her art because she always loved painting”. It gives people background, but it’s shallow. The only people who will care are those who already know Mary.

Storytelling is about using creativity and emotion to make the reader feel closer to the subject. It helps to create and reinforce empathy.

Impactful storytelling relies on seven main elements

1. Compelling characters

We’re all the heroes of our own stories, but we’re usually nothing more than extras (or supporting players at best) in someone else’s. Storytelling offers a way to show other people why we’re worthy of their time and attention – but to do this, it needs to create compelling characters.

That means people who have:

  • A distinctive voice
  • A backstory that provides a strong motivation
  • A backstory and motivation that a lot of people can relate to
  • Vulnerability and the ability to allow themselves to be vulnerable (this is different for fictional characters.)
  • Flaws

It’s almost traditional for businesses to wheel out their CEOs as paragons of virtue, health and perfection. These are the strategic geniuses that make the business the best in its field! But ideal is boring. What’s to be proud of without the struggle to get there?

This isn’t to say that people’s personal struggles should be plastered all over the ‘about us’ section of the website, just that leaders need to let their personality shine through. Talk about times that they were wrong in the past. Be human.

People connect with people and their stories, not with corporate profiles.

2. Conflict

Yes, good storytelling needs conflict. No, this doesn’t mean challenging your no.1 competitor to a Tough Mudder.

It’s the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl.

  • Why did the founder start the business? What pushed them to do it?
  • Why was a certain product or service created? What was the problem that it was designed to solve?

Conflict doesn’t just explain why something has happened (or has to happen) it’s a way we define ourselves. “I don’t like this” becomes “how do I want the world to be instead?” and “what can I do to get things closer to the way I want them to be?”.

The reason for the conflict – whether it’s an instigating incident or a general desire for change – may resonate with the person directly involved, but it won’t always do so with strangers. Just because you think something is an issue that needs addressing, doesn’t mean the rest of the world does or that someone else hasn’t come up with a solution they prefer.

Conflict provides the motivation behind (and the continued potency of) the brand’s story.

3. Engaging plot

Brand storytelling doesn’t end with the origin story. Everything that the brand communicates should be in line with its story.

There’s no point making a big deal about how and why the founders started the business if the driving factor isn’t in line with everything the brand does and stands for now.

That doesn’t mean the brand (and its leaders) can’t evolve – just that that evolution should be part of the storytelling.

People can find it jarring when a brand suddenly acts in contradiction with its existing narrative. While it can work well in fiction, it’s usually not a great idea for brands (that desperately need to build trust with consumers).

4. Consistent Characterisation

Effective storytelling shows a character’s values affecting the actions they take in the story. For brands, this means that their values – even if rooted in the very foundations of the business – aren’t worth much if they don’t demonstrate them in action.

If diversity is a value, what is the business doing to diversify recruitment? How is it supporting people from diverse backgrounds so that they grow into leadership positions? Supporting diversity is about more than posting a supportive tweet during PRIDE or #BLM protests.

Storytelling that shows brands acting is much more impactful than a list of values will ever be.

5. Active language (and plain English)

Language has to be accessible and jargon-free if you want the majority of people to hear what’s being said. It also helps if the brand – and its representatives – sound relatable, rather than overly corporate or too self-important.

People are much more sensitive to empty words and PR jargon these days and will tune out language (or avoid the brand altogether if it’s too annoying).

Using accessible language means that more people will make time to listen to – or communicate with – the brand.

Effective storytelling is about telling the story in a way that other people can relate to and in a way that helps people to empathise with the ambitions of strangers. Storytelling helps people care about the meaning behind a brand and its products and services.

By using authenticity and vulnerability in its storytelling, brands become more human, relatable and trustworthy. Storytelling can be so much more than a buzzword if you know how to tell the tale.

Featured image by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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