Storytelling is at the heart of the human experience. “Time” magazine argued that stories play an important role in human evolution, as people with the ability to tell stories are more likely to find partners and reproduce. Wired found that the desire to tell stories is a nearly universal human experience.
Storytelling also matters for businesses. According to the Harvard Business Review, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University analyzed advertisements and predicted that the ads that paid more attention to structure and story over content were the ones that were most likely to be popular.
So, how can your brand use storytelling to connect with an audience and reach its goals?
These business storytelling techniques can help you get people’s attention and keep it:
Show people the “person” behind the brand with your storytelling. Getting personal doesn’t just humanize your business, it can also help people feel a deeper connection with your brand.
Eyewear company Warby Parker has a personal origin story — one of its founders was a broke college student when they lost their glasses. Unable to afford a new pair, the founder went without during their first semester of graduate school.
This story provides a concrete “why” for Warby Parker’s existence, while simultaneously building empathy with the audience.
Make your audience happy, sad, or angry (although it’s usually better to stick with positive emotions) through your storytelling. One example of a brand story that taps into emotions was Always’s Like a Girl campaign, which sought to get people to question what they really mean when someone says “like a girl” (usually a phrase used as an insult). The ad was called “groundbreaking,” and ended up winning an Emmy.
People who are looking to your business for help probably have conflicts or challenges that they’re facing. When it comes to storytelling, some would argue that if you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story.
The conflict doesn’t have to be particularly huge. You don’t need monsters or dragons, but you do need some sort of “villain.” A good example is the founder of Warby Parker. The conflict there was that they needed new glasses, but didn’t have the money to buy an expensive pair. The “villain” in this case is the overpriced glasses industry.
Add a twist
Adding a twist or surprise to your business’s story gets people to sit up and pay attention. One example is a commercial for Secret antiperspirant, which featured a couple at the end of a romantic dinner. We don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say it flipped the script on traditional gender roles and expectations.
Start at the middle
Jumping into a story in the middle of things puts the audience right in the heart of the action (and eliminates the need for boring exposition). You can go back and explain how things got to where they are, and will be more likely to keep your audience’s attention as you do so.
A lot of what people know about how to tell a story comes from Aristotle, a Greek philosopher. If you are familiar with words like “climax,” “rising action,” and “denouement,” you have old Aristotle to thank.
According to the Harvard Business Review, wildly successful business stories (such as Budweiser’s tale of a puppy and a horse who become friends) owe their success to their use of Aristotle’s poetic structure.
Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar…and sometimes, it’s not. Using an analogy (or another type of comparison, such as a metaphor) in your stories can help your audience make connections. Steve Jobs was apparently a master of using analogies to tell his brand’s story. Think about it: The word “desktop” is now more often used to refer to a computer than it is to refer to the top of a desk.
Appeal to the senses
Modern technology means that storytelling doesn’t just have to be a visual or auditory experience. VR and AR means that you can connect with all of your audience’s senses. As Wired notes, early examples of VR storytelling help to increase empathy between the subjects of the stories and the audience.
Immerse the audience
You don’t necessarily need advanced tech to immerse your audience in a story. You can use visuals and descriptions to move your audience to the heart of your story. One example is a TED Talk from a young man named Richard Turere. Turere is from Ghana, and his talk shares how he created something to keep lions from attacking his family’s cattle.
To really give his audience an idea of what it’s like to live in his village, he uses visuals, including graphics and drawings that illustrate how his invention works.
Show, don’t tell
The key to storytelling is showing your audience the action, rather than telling them about things that happened. “Show, don’t tell” can be a tricky concept to grasp, but at the heart of it is this: Use descriptive language to have the story unwind before your audience’s eyes, rather than handing them a bunch of facts and hoping they make the best of it.