The words are magical. “Once upon a time…” and you are seven again. There might be castles, dragons, or spaceships. Your brain—that thing that fixates on the overdue electric bill, the anxiety-inducing headline, the murky future—vaults away from worry and embraces the story. Storytelling is one of the most ancient of human arts, but tellingly, a good story told today offers the same irresistible invitation as ever.
As Rachel Gillett said in this Fast Company piece, “When we read a story, not only do the language parts of our brains light up, but any other part of the brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing what we’re reading about becomes activated as well.”
Stories get in your skull and walk around.
But let’s look at your own story. You’re the marketing director at a brand badly in need of a facelift. You and your team are developing an energized, content-driven brand strategy that’s going to put the shiny new face of your company under the spotlight, and every camera angle will be showing your good side. The heart of the branding strategy: telling stories.
One minor hitch in the grand plan: you’re the project lead. And though you get it (really get it) that telling stories gets your customers’ brains to light up (and you really tingle to a good story yourself), creative thinking has never been your thing. You’ve never had the knack of telling tales. Building characters, plotting a narrative, and letting the imagination fly is not on your résumé.
The accumulating weight of the adult world might have made you forget about the spark of intuition. But there’s compelling evidence that we are all creative. And one wall of that creative frame is that we’re story-making machines.
But listening to a few podcasts from the Moth gets you thinking that even if telling stories is an art, it’s an art that’s a result of craft and structure—just like a great branding campaign. The Moth, which has hosted more than 25,000 people telling their live audio tales, and has held more than 3,500 live events, is based on the simple premise that ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell.
Bingo. A tiny window opens to a place where you sense that it’s not that you need a creative thinking gene to be a storyteller. More that stories are common to us all and connect us all.
But how best to tell them?
Taking some flight from the Moth’s Tips and Tricks advice, here’s a condensing of their tale-telling wisdom, slanted toward persuasive marketing:
The storyteller has to be all in, with some skin in the game. You have to have something to win or lose. Your branding campaign has to take some risks and expose some of that skin. Today’s customers want to know more than just features and benefits; they want to know the company has a pulse and how to locate its heart.
You have to move the audience toward you from the first breath. So your headlines, your email subject lines, or the first thing your clients see in the two-minute video all have to be alive.
Don’t choke, double back, or say what’s already been said when you deliver your message. Don’t use ten metaphors when one hits home. Be a pro, but relax.
And consider a few don’ts that will keep you from bombing:
Image attribution: Kane Reinholdtsen
Thinking of how stories can connect with media-savvy customers today, you know that revealing the new face of your brand won’t succeed unless your stories resonate. As Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, wrote, “Stories powerfully hook and hold human attention because, at a brain level, whatever is happening in a story is happening to us and not just them.”
You don’t want an “us vs. them” for your brand; you want what Moth founder George Dawes Green describes in this Newsweek article: “I just loved the idea of a community of people that would be able to gather and tell stories. Life for everybody in that group was richer.” A community with you and your customers has so much more dynamic life than seeing customers as fields on a spreadsheet.
So, in some ways, it looks like less is more when it comes to mastering the art of storytelling. Be authentic, expose some of yourself, and make sure that last sentence in every post brings down the curtains to strong applause.
Now that we’re clear that telling tales can not only thrill but convert too, let’s look at a couple of brands that have sold their stories so well, their customers step into those brand stories and write new chapters.
YETI Coolers has to be one of the coolest (sorry) examples. Before we even get into their creation story, know this: one of their coolers, the Tundra 350, retails for $1,300. Before YETI began making coolers that cost hundreds of dollars, there wasn’t even a category or market for premium coolers. They created it, and it thrives.
YETI is the brainchild of brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders, avid outdoorsmen who grew frustrated with the poor quality and durability of standard coolers. They started making prototypes of coolers you could jump on, or that could fall out of a car or cliff and remain strong and usable. As this Inc. profile of the brothers puts it, “…they have built their community, their operating philosophy, around their passionate commitment to the outdoors.”
As the Inc. piece details, they visited fishing-tackle shops and outdoor equipment retailers to show what a premium cooler could do, working small accounts and trade shows and then hiring influential guides and fishermen as brand ambassadors. Word of mouth—and customer raves—followed. Now on the YETI site you can read the stories of these ambassadors: famous figures in the outdoor world, hunters, fishers, competitive ropers, and more, actively depicted in beautiful environments. Their brand became a place to share your story and find an audience to listen (like a Moth reading!).
YETI brothers, step aside for a sisters story: sisters Danielle and Jodie Snyder founded their jewelry brand Dannijo almost 10 years ago. In that time they’ve gathered 145,000 Instagram followers by letting their customers peek into (and comment on) the sisters’ lives, and by showing sharp pics of celebrities and noncelebs wearing their glittery goods.
As this article explains, the company has videos with one of the sisters interviewing influential figures or showing people behind the production of their products. Their “World of Dannijo” blog has sections on Health, Motherhood, Style, and Interviews, many with arresting photo galleries of their topic subjects wearing Dannijo gems (or the sisters themselves wearing them).
Customers have responded positively to the smiling presence of the sisters in most of their marketing; of course, having customers like Beyoncé and Natalie Portman doesn’t hurt. The Snyder sisters have come a long way from making jewelry for all their friends as teenagers, but the center has held: their full, active lives are integrated into their lifestyle brand. And people dig it.
Let your brain explain. Once you absorb the sense that stories are everywhere, you only have to willingly wink at creative thinking to open the storytelling gates. Once you start seeking out stories, you’ll find them. And with an open mindset, you’ll tell them.
However you do it, clear your throat and start with a story. We’ll listen.
Featured image attribution: Patti Black