Storytelling is a buzzword in content marketing at the moment. It’s important for brands to stand out for the right reasons, and telling their personal stories helps them do that. Tracey Alison shares her account of why it’s important and the theory behind storytelling in this guest post, starting with a frightening urban legend as an example of how storytelling impacts us…
A friend of mine, well a friend of a friend to be precise, was in London on business recently. It had been a long week, he had some time to kill before his flight back home and so he popped into a bar in the airport for a quick half.
He was just finishing up, when a beautiful redhead approached and asked if she could buy him drink. He was surprised, to say the least, but kind of flattered too, so went along with things and said yes. What harm could it do?
She bought the drinks, he took a sip and that, was the last thing he remembered. At least that is, until he woke up; disorientated & submerged in ice, in a hotel bathtub.
Panic stricken, he looked around the room trying to work out what had happened & how the hell he’d got there? That was when he found the note; “DO. NOT. MOVE. CALL 999”.
His heart now racing, his breath heavy, he was just about able to reach for the mobile he saw lying on the table, by the bath. He dialed 999; his fingers shaky and numb from the ice. Once through, he explained the situation to the operator who seemed oddly familiar with his situation.
As calmly as she could, the operator replied: “Sir, I want you to very slowly, very carefully, reach behind your back”
Confused, he did as instructed.
“Sir. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?”
“Christ, yes! Yes there is” he answered “What the f**k’s going on?”
“Sir” began the operator. “Do not panic. You need to stay calm. Help is on it’s way. One of your kidneys’ has been harvested by a gang of organ thieves operating in London. Do not, whatever you do, attempt to move until the paramedics arrive. Do you understand me?”
“Yes” he replied.
Now it’s pretty likely that you’ve heard either this story, or one very familiar to it, at some point or another. It’s one of the most successful urban legends of the past couple of decades. The city may have changed, the setting may have changed and it might just have been a blonde rather than a redhead, but the underlying formula remains the same.
So what is it about this and other urban legends, that makes them are stick so firmly in peoples’ minds? How is it that a ridiculous story like this, can make it’s way around the world, several times, laughing in the face of time, when attempts to tell the world about your own amazing new project and all its glorious stats, will fizzle out before they even get going?
Whilst it’s a topic that I could talk endlessly about, the success of your story, whether it’s fiction or fact, boils down to just that: SUCCES
Essentially, a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credentialed, Emotional, Story.
It’s a formula I learnt about some time ago, through the fantastic book Made To Stick by Chip & Dan Heath. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.
Your readers’ time is valuable. Now more than ever before, in an age dominated by social media, they need a reason right at the very start, to continue reading past 120 characters. They need to know that it’s going to be worth their while to give up 5, 10 or 60 minutes of their time.
If you don’t hook them with something unexpected, if you don’t keep it simple and to the point and if you don’t add credibility, you’ll lose them before you even get your boots on.
Most importantly, if you don’t include emotion & if you don’t give them a reason to care, you won’t have hope of keeping their attention.
Humans are designed to want to care; it’s the one thing, however strong our other traits may be, that we can’t get away from.
Give them a story they can care about; a story they can relate to, that will leave them with a better understanding of who they themselves are and you’ll guarantee their attention.
Let’s look at each element of the SUCCES formula in a little more detail:
Sometimes, less really is more. I get your passion. I know how much your work means to you and I know how important it is to get your message out there to the masses. But sometimes, we can overload. We lose track of the ‘commanders intent’; the core message at the heart of our work, our story.
If you look at any of the great books out there; Think & Grow Rich, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, any of them, they can all be stripped down to a series of ‘big ideas’ which sum the book up perfectly; it’s the publisher that wants the writing ‘padded out’.
More often than not, the most powerful message can be summarised in a single sentence. Take proverbs for example; “A bird in the hand is worth six in the bush” is possibly one of the most well known. It may appear in slightly different formats, but the message is the same and speaks loudly & clearly for itself.
The power of surprise is never to be underestimated in its ability to make your audience pay attention. However, it doesn’t last and so what we need to do here, is to create curiosity; intrigue that results from the surprise because, if as humans we need to care, we also want to problem solve. It’s an innate trait, designed to keep the human race growing. Introduce curiosity at the beginning of your story and don’t answer the question until you’re ready to close up.
This is very similar to visuality. Add concrete vision to your story so that your reader can directly relate things to themselves.
A hotel bar, a bath tub filled with ice, a phone placed next to the bath; these are all images your reader can visualise & relate to. If they can put themselves in your story, they are far more likely to remember the details.
Abstract facts and figures will mean nothing to your audience, unless they can relate the figures to their own lives. If for example you’re explaining an area of development as being 37,600 hectares, by the time the audience has pictured the size of the area in their mind, you’ve moved on and they’ve lost the next part of your story or talk. Instead, relate the area to something they already know; it keeps the momentum going & keeps the audience in the story. They are much more likely to remember the area of development as being the same size as your local city, than a vague figure. Keep it simple, without it sounding simple.
We’ve touched on this already, but I cannot emphasize how important it is that you introduce emotion to your story. Make your audience feel something. In the words of the great Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Relate your message to real life events.
A great piece of advice I was once given was to start an interaction, by answering the question you wanted them to ask, with a great story. It’s a great way to break the ice, command the room and to introduce a little humour.
It doesn’t matter what the story is; it could be about your journey to get to them or a little background info. So long as the story relates to the topic on the table and it gets attention, you’re cool.
Just remember though… never ruin a great story, with the truth! Exaggerate, add humour, add excitement, be bold and draw them in.
People love stories. They inspire, provoke thought, drive creativity and aid growth. Storytelling is here to stay and mastering the art, whether spoken or written, is something you can all do. And if you can’t, that’s where I come in!
I hope I’ve left you with some ideas to move forward with. Everyone has a story. Every company has a story. What’s yours?
I look forward to hearing it and, even better, hearing from you. In the meantime I have some free time so I’m off to grab a drink at the bar…