Engaging Your Audience Through Storytelling
Exciting products may drive traffic to your site, but what keeps users engaged? Stories work — when you use them.
Stories Are Everywhere
Whether it’s at events like Brené Brown’s now-famous TED talk where she introduced herself as a “researcher-storyteller”; in courses on narrative from the likes of IDEO; or embedded on almost every social media platform, the concept of story has never been harder to ignore.
Research shows that the human brain is hardwired for stories, and when we look at our own lives, we can quickly see why: Nearly everything we do is the building block of a story. What exactly counts as a story? By definition, a story is merely “an account of incidents or events” — which can be as simple as getting hungry, cooking dinner, and then eating. We see microstories like this all the time on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.
But if social media is any indication, just because a story exists doesn’t mean it’s compelling. Most everyday stories have little conflict or drama — elements that make for great entertainment — and thanks to social media, we're widely able to bear witness to life in all its banality. This might work on social media because consuming such a microstory takes little time, but you’ll never see a 16-hour movie of someone’s actual day.
So what makes a good story, especially when it comes to business? Take it from the master storytellers at Disney: Great stories connect by entertaining, informing, or inspiring their audience. For brands, this means going beyond the facts of a product and leading with how it will transform (or otherwise bring deep meaning) to a customer’s life.
Treat Story as Its Own Feature
Since businesses are inherently created to solve problems, it often doesn’t take too much effort to extrapolate a meaningful story from a product’s purpose. However, it can be difficult for someone who has been intimately involved with a product or business to adequately distance themselves and see the story clearly on their own, which is why a team brainstorm can be helpful. What is the most natural, obvious story that emerges from this business? This may be the first thing that comes to mind when outsiders are introduced to your product, or it may be the story that everyone within the company is already most familiar with.
1. Identify stories that reinforce your mission
If you are struggling to uncover stories in your business, remember that all humans are magnetically drawn to stories, so the answer to identifying narratives that resonate already lies within the hearts of you and your team. Brainstorm with your team and then work through the stories that have the most emotional impact. Is it a founder story? Client testimonial? Employee journey? Or perhaps it’s from a charitable event you sponsored
More often than not, the best stories directly relate to — and underscore — your company’s mission. Remember that investing and purchasing decisions are often driven by emotion. Unlocking the human heart is more challenging than dazzling someone with features, but the dividends of doing so are incomparable.
2. Distinguish brand values from story
Brand stories are not the same as brand values, although they should include the latter. A brand value may be “playfulness,” and this value may show up in a variety of ways in your marketing. For example, your website may have colorful interactions that signal light-heartedness, and the copywriting style may be informal. But these on their own do not comprise a story.
Let’s break down stories into two categories: Company stories and user stories. Company stories tend to be more obvious — these are the ones that cover how the company was founded, milestones, and a vision for the future. They can also include profiles of employees and teams to inspire leaders within and outside the company, as well as spotlight brand partners and events. At minimum, they are an informative recounting of business development, and at best, they illuminate the higher purpose of why the company exists at all.
User stories, on the other hand, are about your customer. One relatively easy story formula to implement is that of the “hero’s journey.” In this narrative, your customer is the hero with a big problem, and you’re the guide who leads them to a groundbreaking solution. This need not be a long journey; in fact, the more quickly you can identify a potential customer’s pain point and lead them to a solution, the sooner you can convert them into a paying customer. The user story should be rooted in market research to be most effective, and testing the story will help make it better over time.
3. Decide how to implement and don’t sanitize your brand
Some brands tend to shy away from utilizing a strong tone, afraid that too much personality will turn away customers. In fact, a strong brand personality will draw in a strong customer. If you know your niche inside-out, you should be unapologetic in speaking directly to them in their own language. No brand is for everyone. Be proud of the stories you have and make a plan to showcase these more widely. In today’s digital world, there are a number of channels through which you can share your story and get feedback on whether or not it is resonating.
Keep Developing Your Voice
Stories have the ability to be timeless in a rapidly-changing world. Too many businesses fall into the trap of mimicking each other in an attempt to adhere to arbitrary industry standards, forced to change as quickly as trends do. Staying rooted in your unique story and perspective will relieve you of the burden of trying to keep up with fads, and indeed position you as truly original to your customers. Keep track of the stories you accumulate over time, as these will serve to make your brand voice both stronger and more authentic.