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Wired for Story: Empathy and the New Brand Storytelling with Tom Gerace

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Stories are food. You can make a reasonable argument that stories are a human nutritional requirement of the emotional-developmental type—food for your brain, you may call it. We share collective stories in our social structures and personal ones within our consciousness, and all influence our motivations, actions, and reflections. In the business world, brand storytelling is now close to a movement, rooted in customer empathy and connection.

Tom Gerace, Skyword’s founder and CEO, has been a major force in the growth of brand storytelling as a movement. Today, he views story not simply as a tool to reach customers, but as an imperative for brands seeking genuine connection, which he argues is now more important than ever. In an increasingly polarized environment, where we struggle to identify with those whose views do not reflect our own, story can be the key to promoting empathy.

I spoke with Gerace ahead of his upcoming presentation at Forward 2017 on how brands can embrace empathetic storytelling in their quests to connect with audiences.

Headshot of Tom Gerace

What is the power of empathy as it relates to stories?

“Empathy is the central organizing principle for my keynote talk. Story has the unique ability to help us experience life as somebody else. In fact, experience it as somebody who comes from a different background, growing up in a different part of the world with different resources or different life experiences and different culture than our own. I think because storytelling can do that, a well-told story is unique in its ability to help us step outside our own naturally self-centered view of the world and think more broadly.

“I don’t know of any ways that are as effective as story in building connection between people. You can think about how stories have transported you into different worlds and find a good example of that. I mean, I didn’t grow up in the ’50s and ’60s. I didn’t grow up as an African American. I didn’t grow up as a woman. But man, did I connect with the characters in Hidden Figures when I watched that film.

“Stories help you to understand life and the complexities and nuances of life better. It’s good for the world because it helps us all be better citizens of the world. And if you’re a business leader, it’s certainly good for your business. Because if you can’t build a connection with your customers, and that connection requires empathy, then in a post-advertising world, you’re going to struggle to get them to try or buy the things you want them to.”

Setting aside business aspects for the moment, can you think of when you were first struck in your own life by the power of storytelling?

“I think that we all experience it all of our lives. We are in fact wired for story. Story is the form in which we experience and record the world, and it’s the form in which we forecast the world and make decisions. So, the brain is really a storytelling and story-consuming machine. I think that story has been with me since birth, as it has been for all of us.”

Gerace experienced one of his first direct “aha” moments about storytelling not long after he’d turned 30. He’d co-written a screenplay and proudly sent it to a friend, one of the producers of the movie Airplane!. The producer told him to take one of Robert McKee’s story seminars, and only then did Gerace understand that he wasn’t exactly being encouraged about the power of his screenplay.

“After I saw McKee, I thought the producer’s suggestion was the gentlest and yet most severe rejection I’ve ever received. Because McKee’s seminar really did two things for me: It helped me understand the power of the craft of storytelling when it is done well and at the same time, helped me understand just how poorly at the time I was doing it (or we were doing it). That stuck with me and really played a role in my business life ever since, and in my personal life, no doubt.”

How did those McKee workshops influence you and your work at Skyword, and in turn, influence other people you work with at Skyword?

“Advertising has entered a rapid phase of decline, and that tees up a huge problem for marketers. That is, how they connect with their customers in a world in which those customers reject interruption and can block it, opt out of it, subscribe to a service that’s ad free—people are doing that by the millions every month.

“The brand marketer has to find a way to hook attention of an audience, hold that attention, reward that attention, and then move somebody to act. And in a world in which we are constantly bombarded with opportunities to read, view, and listen to something new, the marketer has got to get really good at doing those things.

“So that drove the company to focus on storytelling and moving brands from content creation to storytelling, and we believe will move the industry from content marketing to brand storytelling, which is a subset of content marketing, is the fact that storytelling is simply far more effective at doing those things. Hooking, holding, rewarding audience attention, and moving people to act.”

The Storynomics seminars teach aspects of story form designed to hook, hold, and reward attention. If applied well in a business mode, story can compel someone to try or buy a product. “The problem most marketers have when it comes to hooking and holding attention is not that audiences aren’t willing to give them their attention. They are if the experience is worthwhile. The problem is that marketers are creating crap content,” says Gerace. “The short way to say it is ‘craft content that is worthy of their customers’ time.’”

A lot of companies and industry analysts are now talking about storytelling in brands, and Skyword is at the forefront. What kinds of trends are you observing in those areas among marketing professionals?

“Because of the trends we’ve just talked about, brands are shifting from ad-centric to story-centric initial marketing. As a result, the role of the marketer is shifting from an optimization role to a role as change agent. Over decades, ads have had the same basic model: Find the stories your customers love, interrupt them with the ad, and spend enough until you get brand awareness and then brand affinity.

“Marketers as their core roles were just optimizing on that theme. They were testing new places to put their ads. They were testing new ways to create ads. But it was the same basic approach, and all they were doing is measuring the math to figure out which purpose would be the best. Now, most marketers will learn to become, if they’re doing this well, good showrunners. And they will, when they are creating content in a sustaining way, work with professional creatives.

“They’re going to come up with the capital and the plan. They’re going to come up with and hire or retain the talent to create the thing. They’re going to manage the project as the showrunner, but they’re going to rely on experts at every creative task to actually tell extraordinary stories for them; because I don’t think you’re going to find Meryl Streep taking a job with P&G any day soon.”

Gerace says that even small to medium businesses will need to tell brilliant stories but at a lower budget. “Anybody with a camera can create a story. So if you’re an entrepreneur and you can tell a powerful story, you can connect with your audience. You don’t really need a massive production budget to do it. And you can’t try to mask a bad story with a big production budget,” he says.

Gerace speaks at Forward 2017 on June 15 in Boston, MA, and teaches Storynomics alongside Robert McKee on June 16.

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Featured image attribution: Casey Kelbaugh

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Tom Bentley is a content marketing copywriter and editor, a magazine feature writer,  a travel writer and a published fiction writer and editor. He's published articles in Forbes, The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, the San Jose Mercury News, Draft magazine and many more. He has won several nonfiction and fiction writing awards.

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