Are you telling your customers what to do, or showing them what's possible?
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Nobody Likes a Know-It-All: How Storytelling Can Fix Your Tone Problem

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I was a well-behaved kid, but I was also curious, mischievous, and a know-it-all. As much as I respected (and sort of feared) my mama, I entered battles of will with her, convinced that I was right. That left her two choices:

  1. Tell me what to do.

  2. Convince me she was right.

When she was low on time or patience, she went with the classic, “Because I told you so.” But that only worked in the short term. If I didn’t actually learn a lesson, I would likely do the same thing later.

Her other tactic was much more effective: storytelling.

My mama can’t tell a joke to save her life, but boy can she tell a story—at least when she wants to make a point. She includes all the right details for the greatest emotional impact. She makes you visualize what she’s describing and empathize with whom she’s describing.

You see, Mama understands what many brands are only just beginning to realize: People don’t like to be told what to do or think. But they do like stories. Better yet, they learn from stories.

The most memorable stories she told me and my sister were those regarding personal safety—why you should always lock your doors and wear your seat belt, why you should never get into a car with a stranger, and what can happen when you’re careless on a trampoline. But those stories are too horrific to share here. (Trust me, you’re welcome.) Suffice it to say, they evoke images in my brain that I’ve never been able to erase. She’s a psych nurse who started out working in the ER, so she has some awful stories. And she’s not above using fear as a motivator to keep her loved ones safe.

But not all her stories ended like Grimm’s fairy tales or episodes of America’s Most Wanted. There were also stories that illustrated the importance of kindness, respect, and compassion for others, as well as standing up for yourself.

I’ll never forget the day I came home from elementary school and told Mama a girl was bullying me. It started with insults, but the girl had also pushed me a couple times on the playground. I never knew why she targeted me, but something about me clearly bothered her.

I expected Mama to handle the situation—to perhaps talk to the teacher or principal—or to tell me what to say to make the girl leave me alone. Instead, she said, “If she pushes you again, push her back. If she hits you, hit her back. Or else you’re in trouble. That’s the only way to handle bullies.”

empty swingset on playground

Image attribution: Aaron Burden

I shook my head and reminded her that I was kind of a sissy and would probably end up getting hurt. I also pointed out that fighting was bad—she had told me so herself—and that I got in trouble when I hit my sister. So maybe I should just ignore the girl until she found a new target.

Starting a fight is bad,” Mama said. “But there’s nothing wrong with standing up for yourself. You can’t let people push you around in life. And if kids don’t stand up to bullies, those bullies grow up to be even worse adults.”

Then she told me about Ricky, a schoolyard bully from her own childhood. “He probably had a bad home life,” she said. “I felt sorry for him, but I felt sorrier for all the kids he picked on and pushed around on the playground.”

So, one day, my scrawny but scrappy mother managed to get Ricky alone behind a shed on the playground. “I whooped him good,” she said. “Before I let him up, I told him that if I ever saw him picking on anyone again, he’d get some more.”

Mama never had to whoop him again, she said, but a couple other kids did. “After that, we never had any more problems out of him.”

Her parenting advice was pretty standard, at least in the days before social media, school shootings, and zero-tolerance policies in schools. But the moral of her story is still relevant: Be kind to everyone, but stand up for yourself and others. Her story brought that lesson to life and illustrated real-world results: The bully eventually backed down.

A few days later, when my own bully approached me, I thought about running. But I remembered Mama’s story and stood my ground. When she pushed me down, I got up, told her it was unacceptable to put her hands on other people, and pushed her back. Only then did I run like hell. (I wasn’t kidding about the sissy thing.) I still remember the look of angry shock on her face as I ran away, but she never approached me again.

If Mama had just told me to stand up to that girl, or to be careful on trampolines, or to remember to lock the doors at night, I probably wouldn’t have listened. But the tale of Ricky the Bully and all the tragic people in Mama’s horror stories got my attention, changed my behavior, and stuck with me all these years.

That’s exactly what brands want their content to do—to get people’s attention, to change their minds and behavior, and to be memorable and shareable—which happens to be exactly what a good story does.

Never Tell Your Audience What to Do

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of not talking to your audience like they’re stupid. The flip side of that is not insinuating you’re smarter than your audience.

That’s what happens when you tell someone what to do. You’re saying that you know better, and perhaps you do. My mama certainly knew better than I did about the risks associated with talking to strangers, driving too fast, and those dangerous trampolines. But I still wanted her to prove it every single time.

Many marketers—particularly those who are young or inexperienced in content creation—make the mistake of telling audiences what they “should” do or “better” do. I know I did, until one of my first editors insisted I remove the word should from my vocabulary. She also wasn’t big on imperative sentences. “Don’t tell them what to do,” she told me. “Show them how other people have done it and succeeded.”

Telling audiences what to do can come across as bossy or condescending, particularly for B2B marketers whose audiences tend to be experienced corporate decision-makers. But consumers don’t like it much either, according to marketing researchers at the University of Central Florida.

In a recent study on assertive advertising, researchers showed magazine ads to more than 1,000 participants in seven different studies. Of those ads, 72 percent used assertive language such as “buy now” or “act fast.”

Afterwards, participants indicated how they liked the ads, their opinion of the brand, and their spending intentions. In one experiment, participants were shown an ad and then asked how much of a $25 gift card they would spend on the brand. Those shown assertive ads allocated $7 on average; those shown non-assertive ads chose to spend $14.

Bossiness was an even greater turnoff for customers who already had a relationship with the brand. Yael Zemack-Rugar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Central Florida and a coauthor on the study, explained to the Wall Street Journal, “This effect is much worse for the consumers that tend to be the most loyal. That kind of loyalty can backfire, because they get more annoyed than anyone if you tell them what to do.”

If saying “buy now” annoys people in a 50-word magazine ad, imagine how it comes across in a 500-word blog post or a 1,500-word case study.

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to address the elephant in the room: I’m telling you that you should not tell your audience what they should or should not do. I’d never use those exact words—except to make this exact point—but that’s basically what I’m saying.

Hypocritical? Maybe a little. But I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I have data to back it up, and I have stories . . . lots and lots of stories.

The Power of Parables, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Myths

I’ve always thought my mother’s storytelling approach to child-rearing was commendable. It’s much more time-consuming and mentally taxing to search your memory for a relevant story than it is to simply explain why you’re right. But she can’t take credit for this strategy.

Societies have long relied on fables and fairy tales to teach children lessons and morals. We all learned about the importance of integrity and trust from The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the dangers of laziness from The Three Little Pigs, and the meaning of stranger-danger from Little Red Riding Hood. Even the romantic fairy tales have lessons to teach—that love transcends money (Cinderella, Aladdin), that you shouldn’t judge a book (or a Beast) by its cover, that people should really be nicer to their stepkids.

But storytelling isn’t just an effective way to teach lessons to children. The Bible, the Qur’an, ancient mythology, and other religious texts are full of stories meant to illustrate good and bad behavior.

In many Bible stories about Jesus, he tells another story—a parable—usually when someone is missing his point. For example, consider the parable of the good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to go to heaven. Jesus tells him to love God with all his heart and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So, the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

In this story, Jesus could have just said, “Duh, everyone is your neighbor. Treat everyone like you want to be treated.” But the story was just so much cooler, and so much more memorable.

Want to make your content cooler, more memorable, and less likely to annoy your most loyal customers? It might be time to add some stories into your content strategy.

3 Ways to Make Your Point with Brand Storytelling

I’m not suggesting your brand should start writing fairy tales, though you certainly could. Several brands have had great success with that content strategy. But there are other, less whimsical types of stories that might make more sense for your brands. Here are my three favorites:

1. Success stories

It’s one thing to say, “You’ll get great results if you do what I’m telling you.” It’s far more powerful to tell a story about a real person who did what you’re suggesting and got great results. The proof is in the pudding (i.e., the customer success story).

2. Before-and-after stories

Don’t have a real-life example to share? That doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story. Think about what life was like for your customers before and after the solution you’re suggesting. For example, let’s say your company sells collaboration software to enterprises. What was an average day like for users before your solution? What were their challenges and process gaps? And how are things different with collaboration software?

Tell that story. Empathize with users, and paint a picture of what could be.

3. Data-driven stories

Hard numbers definitely help make a point, whether it’s your own data or you’ve just done a lot of research, but too much data can make content dry and unengaging. Data turned into a story—that’s a winning combination.

What insights does your brand have that are worth sharing? And what story does that data tell?

To Tell Stories or Not to Tell Stories?

My mama didn’t have to tell me stories. She could have just told me what to do, and I would have done it. But I wouldn’t have learned anything. I wouldn’t have changed my mind or my long-term behavior.

The same is true for brands. You don’t have to tell stories. I won’t even say you should tell stories. But just imagine how much more powerful your content could be if you did.

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Featured image attribution: photo-nic.co.uk nic

Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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