Communication strategist and an expert in branding, high-stakes pitching and strategic storytelling
The hype around storytelling in the last few years has felt a bit like a tsunami, especially in the tech scene. Being in the epicenter of this storm, I watched as my strategic-storytelling practices transformed from being viewed as fresh and a bit risky to old and trivial in a heartbeat.
Today, as the dust settles, it is clear that the revolution stories were to bring to the business world has failed. Yes, a ton of content/copywriters have repositioned themselves as storytellers. And yes, many traditional practices gained story-related names (everything is “our story” now, ain’t it?). But the approaches to developing strategic messaging stayed pretty much the same.
Just look at what the newly appointed corporate Heads of Storytelling focus on as they obsessively share their or their clients’ stories with us. Guys, those are just the same old “testimonials” and “founders’ stories.” Most of the time, they suck, and they have no ability to break through the indifference of your audience.
Stories can deliver unparalleled results for businesses when they’re used in the right way. Yet, at the core business level, proper understanding of stories and what “story” truly means is still a rarity.
Pervasive misconceptions about stories
I invite you to dive deeper into stories, and learn about three key aspects of stories that will help you to truly utilize the full power of this amazing tool:
1. Stories are not just something we tell, but something the brain creates
Most neuroscientists who study the impact of stories (yes, it’s a thing now) agree with the core discovery made by Professor Michael Gazzaniga in the ’70s: Our brain always attempts to create stories about all external stimuli in order to make sense of it.
When we encounter something new, let’s say a guy with a neck tattoo, we try to make sense of it by crafting a story in our brains. Now, this story about him will be based on prior experiences and beliefs; thus, one might assume he is an ex-convict or gang member.
Now, what’s important here is that our brain crafts those stories all the time, and does it prior to information reaching consciousness.
Don’t believe it? Just try to make sense of the following six words that are considered to be a classic short story:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
What just happened in your brain? Did it try to consciously analyze the information in this sentence piece by piece in order to come up with meaningful conclusions? Or did a story just pop into your consciousness? What was the story about? Did your brain just tell you a story about a poor family with a dead baby? Why???
It’s okay, you aren’t alone here. Most of the people I know kill this baby. (Actually, all the people I know … besides my mom, who assumed that the shoes were for sale due to unseasonal weather. The baby is dead, Mom, let it go!)
Crafting those stories is not something we intentionally do, but simply a part of how our brain works and stores information. This is the way it tries to make sense of our often senseless world. (There is quite a lot of supporting research data I can quote here, but this will make the text very difficult to read. Next time. Follow if interested!)
What this means is that, whether you want them to or not, your customers will tell themselves a story about your product or service. Moreover, this story can easily become an obstacle, as in many cases people tell themselves negative stories about companies and their products.
2. These internal narratives are very subjective
Going back to the way my mom perceived the “baby shoes” story helps you understand that
our internal stories are very subjective. If someone involved in the fashion world were to meet the same guy with a neck tattoo, they might assume he is a fashion model (it’s also a thing now).
Also, think about the different ways people perceive the same news events. People from different backgrounds, men and women, Republicans and Democrats … we all tell ourselves different stories about the same situations.
This also means that, counterintuitively, sharing information in its purest form carries the highest risk of misconception by others. Different people will tell themselves different stories about the same information.
Turning information into a story creates alignment between you and all the different people you target. And when I say alignment I actually mean a true alignment of brainwaves between the teller and the various listeners:
Efficient strategic storytelling demands a deeper understanding of internal narratives during customer research. And, it should result in strategic stories customized to subgroups with different perspectives.
3. You don’t need a story per se
Having said all that, the stories we tell to ourselves aren’t exactly stories in the same sense as when they’re told to us by others. My brain doesn’t go: Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…
Our brain’s stories aren’t necessary verbal; it’s a subjective and intuitive representation of reality. Basically, it’s just a bunch of neurons firing rigorously in an attempt to make sense of the confusing world they are somehow in contact with. They’re merely trying to fill in the missing information they desperately need, such as the motivation of the protagonist (whether it’s a shoe seller or a guy with a neck tattoo).
For me, this means that the role of a persuasive communicator is not necessarily to tell stories but to make sure a listener has all the right pieces to complete a story puzzle herself.
Focusing on Story Blocks
This complexity and the artistic flair around stories can be discouraging and overwhelming for people who already feel that they lack the needed creativity for storytelling. But what I tell those people is that this perspective should actually encourage them.
You don’t have to have the intuitive genius of Mark Twain to create impactful stories, nor do you need the stage presence of Eddie Murphy. With my approach to stories, it’s the analytical people who can be the best strategic storytellers. (These are also the people who report gaining the biggest value from my consultancy and workshops.)
Crafting the basic blocks of a story, and allowing an audience to connect the dots is perfect for fields that are characterized by relatively rational decision-making. It also allows people to use the power of stories in places where telling stories might sound unprofessional. Any piece of information, from the most boring financial data to research conclusions, can be constructed into the form of an engaging and impactful story.
Consider this article as an example: It has all the basic story blocks to make sure we are in sync, without sounding like a fable. I will write more about these blocks in future posts… this is how you leave a place for a sequel, by the way…
Follow along, friends, if this sounds interesting, and consider giving me a couple of claps or — god forbid — a share. Those create the dopamine boost I desperately need in order to continue writing, as I am far from being Mark Twain myself. Thanks!