While exploring the question of “how to be a good storyteller” will probably net more than a few eye rolls, it doesn’t mean that the ability to spin a good emotional narrative isn’t an essential tool for businesses trying to effectively communicate with their customers.
The connection between the human brain and emotional narrative is far more than a scientific phenomenon. Turns out, the neurochemical response in our brains that influences cooperative behavior and empathy toward fellow humans is also part of what shapes our brain’s response to a good story.
Multiple studies by neuroscientist and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Paul J. Zak, explore the relationship between oxytocin—a neurochemical produced in the brain when humans convey trust, kindness, and compassion toward one another—and storytelling. His studies also explore how stories influence certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
Zak and his team found that effectively triggering an oxytocin response in the brain when telling a story depends on a range of factors, namely how relatable the characters are to the audience’s own experiences, as well as the degree of their struggle along their journey to whatever resolution the story has in play. This connection between character and viewer, with empathy the main driver, has big implications for brand storytelling.
How the Fundamentals of Good Storytelling Apply to Business
In fictional narratives, the circumstances that shape the emotional and physical journeys that a character must navigate in the course of a story are only part of what connects us to the characters. It’s also how easily we can relate our own experiences and personalities (or that of people we know and love) to the characters on screen that cements the connection.
Likewise, how to be a good storyteller in business isn’t just about pulling heart strings or trying to create emotional connections to our products from a broad perspective. It’s about facilitating a deeper relationship between customer and brand that only comes from thinking about the customer long before (and after) the transaction occurs.
From there, the fundamentals of effective business storytelling aren’t really that distinct from what keeps us glued to the tube or fully immersed in a page turner:
Be Relatable: To successfully connect the customer to a good story, there has to be intent to deliver something of value by matching strong identified needs and desires to the story. Chipotle is one brand that has embraced relatability and authenticity in brand storytelling. To get in the Halloween spirit, the company released a short video titled “Unneces-scary,” which portrays a customer attempting to order from the restaurant, but something is wrong. Instead of the brand’s GMO-free ingredients, the employees behind the counter inject the burrito bowl with preservatives. She wasn’t ordering from a Chipotle at all; this was a Cheapotle.
Chipotle has consistently told its brand story from a natural-food-is-better perspective, and its audience has come to crave the company’s narrative, with its short videos regularly garnering millions of views and positive engagement. “Unneces-scary” is just the latest episode. #Boorito indeed.
Make the Customersthe Heroes: Put them in the story, in the drivers seat if possible, and empower the customer to somehow shape his or her own narrative through having a hand in his or her specific customer experience. “I want real,” the Chipotle customer says, looking at Cheapotle’s Fast Food Pyramid of Cheap, Fast, and Good. “Why isn’t real up there?”
Keep it Simple: Provide a simple structure that allows the customer to easily identify how your story relates to his or her own. The consumer should be able to easily pick up on the desired outcome of the narrative and understand fundamentally how it relates to him or her in application. To the woman ordering her burrito bowl, her desired outcome is simple: She wants real food, prepared naturally, and in a real kitchen.
Be Human: The customer needs to see just enough behind the curtain to know that brands are delivering what they say they will. More importantly, customers need to see as much of the wizard as possible. They need to see that real people are behind the transaction and looking to empathize with their challenges. Chipotle understands that good health is important to everyone. Even though it’s more expensive to offer GMO-free meat, the company has managed to build a brand with a market cap of $22.2 billion, and people are eating up its story.
Applying the “Good Story” Fundamentals to Content
Once you’ve established a firm understanding of the fundamentals, the question of how to be a good storyteller is really about how to create an infrastructure for applying the fundamentals of a good, emotion-driven narrative to content creation—without being too generic or high level.
Rather than initially focusing on specific tactics or channels, start by establishing a foundation of understanding the customer so that you can focus on creating value to deepen the connection.
Here are a few starting points to consider:
Gather customer feedback. Involve customer service and sales and focus on more of the personal conversation happening on the ground floor of the customer experience. Find specific challenges expressed in conversations with customers and prospects so marketing can align those insights into identified needs with subject matter expertise.
Map out customer personas and their paths from intent all the way to conversion. That way you can structure different elements of the story to align with a specific target audience and craft an overall narrative that provides customers different paths to get from first engagement or entry point to their desired outcome.
Get personal and share the ‘Why’ that drives company leadership out of bed and the ups and downs of your/their own hero’s journey from obscurity to success. Give the customer opportunity to connect to the characters in your business’ story on a personal level. A great example would be Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness, who routinely puts himself, his story, and his own fitness adventures front and center to use as a teaching tool. It creates a stronger connection to Steve and lends personal credibility and legitimacy to his products. The question is how you can best represent your company’s personal narrative in a way that is both genuine and human without being trite or strategically authentic.
Encourage and empower customers to share their stories in relation to your own. Give them an outlet for expression so that they can carry that connection beyond the end game. Not just a conversion built from emotional connection—but a conversation that gives residual value and makes the story more innately personal.
The trick here is to avoid getting trapped in campaigning emotional connection to customers by trying to trick them into caring about your business.
The framework of the story you tell as a brand has to be built on something fundamentally sound, meaning your characters need to not only be relatable and human but your business narrative also needs to be anchored by tangible value that the customer can immediately relate to what brought them to your doorstep in the first place.