Rise Above the Chaos

July 6, 2015

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul,” suggested Brené Brown at TEDx Houston in 2010 during her talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”

By Laurie Hileman

The academic researcher—and gifted storyteller—fretted after her 2010 speech, at one point lamenting to a friend, “I just told 500 people I had a breakdown!”

Never did she imagine her talk would become one of TED’s most popular ever, with more than 19 million views (as of this writing).

What Brown understands—and uses so effectively—is the power of stories to inspire and inform, entertain and engage. And businesses are taking note.

In a modern world knuckling under a barrage of noisy marketing messages and relentless communication, a compelling narrative is essential for any organization looking to establish trust and inspire action from employees, customers, prospects, and other stakeholders.

Here’s what you need to know about brand storytelling, developing your own narrative, and how to tell it effectively.

Why storytelling?

“We can all shout from the rooftops about how good we are,” says Mark Masters, author of The Content Revolution: Telling a Better Story to Differentiate from the Competition and owner of The ID Group, a content marketing consultancy based in the United Kingdom.

“We’re very good at using Facebook and Twitter to try to sound more important, but what a story does is it allows people into our worlds. Storytelling is now one of the only differentiators that we have as businesses,” he says.

And differentiate we must.

Every day 4.75 billion pieces of content are shared, 1.8 billion photos are uploaded and shared, 500 million tweets are posted, and 400 million snapchats are sent.* Yes, every day.

“I’m competing with my mum, who’s signed up for a Twitter account!” quips Masters.

Differentiating your business or organization demands a compelling narrative that appeals to a specific audience: yours.

Far better than lifeless facts and figures, or worn-out features and benefits, stories build empathy, create understanding, and motivate people to action. Tell a good story and your audience will perk up. Lean in. Stay when there may be cheaper, better, faster alternatives elsewhere.

Masters warns that having today’s communication tools such as websites, blogs, email newsletters, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts is not enough. “Gone are the days of the build-it-and-they-will-come mentality. All that it means in 2015 is that we have a ticket to enter the race,” he says.

What’s my story? 

The race to get content produced and distributed via various communication channels is a fool’s errand without a clear strategy and well-defined target audience. It’s simply not viable to be all things to all people. Says Masters, “You need to stand for something.”

Are you a lawn care business with over-the-top customer service? Are you an accounting firm capable of breaking down complex tax issues in a way even a middle-schooler can understand? Determine what uniquely defines your company, your brand strategy, and your goals.

With a clear picture in mind, think carefully about the audience you are trying to reach. Is it existing customers? Prospects that look just like your best customers? Suppliers? Donors?

Once you have a well-defined audience and strategy in place, it’s time to start developing narratives to support your goals. Look deeply. What problems can you solve? How can you make your customers’ lives better? The goal, Masters says, is to become your customers’ best answer by providing real value.

“A powerful narrative can persuade customers, employees, investors, and stakeholders that your company, product, or idea can help them achieve the success they desire,” writes Carmine Gallo, in his book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.

“People are more engaged with products when they know where those products come from and if they get to know the real people behind those products,” Gallo writes.

Masters suggests capturing your story ideas in an editorial calendar, a document outlining story topics, the intended audience, and marketing channel that will be used.

Getting your story heard.

“Marketing is still the same; the difference is everything is now magnified. There are more channels than ever before,” says Masters. The key is finding what channels resonate most with your audience and inviting them in.

He’s a strong proponent of an owned-media approach, one that is 100-percent owned by the company. Rather than relying heavily on channels such as Facebook or LinkedIn— where you’ve little control over costs or competing messages—focus especially on traditional channels such as custom publications or in-person events, where you maintain complete control of the narrative, or use your website or blog.

“Slowly, you’re creating pockets and spaces that are relevant to that [audience],” says Masters. These are spaces in which relationships are nurtured and grown.

Just as personal relationships develop and strengthen over time, so do brand relationships built on open, honest storytelling. Masters warns against taking a “we’ll try this for three months and see” campaign approach. Instead, he stresses the need for a long-term commitment. “It has to be part of a longer mindset,” he says.

Author and screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee once said: “If you don’t control your story and tell it powerfully, others will tell it for you with less than flattering results. Fair or unfair, stories shape corporate futures.”

Start strengthening your brand and shaping your future with a marketing strategy rich in storytelling. Content that consistently educates, entertains, and engages your audience drives profitable action.

* NewsCred (2015), The Personalization Game: How to Use Content to Drive Marketing ROI [white paper].