Grabbing your audience’s attention feels impossible.
There’s just too much noise out there.
…But what if your customers would say: “WOW! This is what I’m looking for. Where’s the buy button?” right when they land on your site?
Yeah, that’s powerful. And with storytelling, you can do it. Or more specifically, with the right storytelling formula, you can do it.
So what is business storytelling? Let’s dive right in.
1. Why is storytelling a skill you should master?
Entrepreneurs who make a difference relate to and interact with other people – they are, in effect, professional storytellers. – Richard Branson
In 1852, a novel by an unknown female author became a huge success. About three years later, Abraham Lincoln allegedly credited it for having started the Civil War.
That novel is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
By showing how slaves suffered, Harriet Beecher Stowe persuaded free Americans to turn against slavery.
You see, her readers could feel the emotions her story characters were feeling.
Now, it was a whole lot harder to turn a blind eye to what was going on at the plantations.
This shows just how powerful stories are:
As humans, we’re wired for stories.
Stories can change the way we think, feel, and act.
Don’t take my word for it. Instead, let’s go back to the beginning of our time on this earth.
#1: Stories explain our existence
Storytelling goes all the way back to when we communicated with grunts and lived in caves.
Even back then, humans made sense of the world through mythology – that is, stories.
Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is. – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Ancient tribes and communities did it. And we do it, too. Every world religion has a story that tells us something about why we live in this world.
Plus, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Titanic”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Star Wars”… They all communicate and explain something to us about our own lives.
#2: Storytelling is about survival
OK, so we explain our existence through stories. But WHY?
The thing is:
The basic function of stories is survival.
Storytelling is a way for us to communicate with our tribes and communities.
By encasing the lesson in a story, these early writers ensured that it would be passed along – and perhaps even be believed more wholeheartedly than if the lesson’s words were spoken simply and plainly. That’s because people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride. – Jonah Berger (Contagious: Why Things Catch On (2013))
Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a best-selling author of Contagious and Invisible Influence: The Invisible Forces That Shape Behavior. Learn more about him on his website.
Telling children not to walk alone in the woods “because there are wolves there” is far less effective than, say, coming up with a story about a girl who visits her sick grandma and gets eaten by a wolf.
This story makes us feel anxious and afraid. We can relate to what the little girl is going through. It worked well for parents in the 17th Century.
And it works just as well today.
So yeah, the short story (yes, annoying pun intended) is that stories are pretty powerful stuff.
If you want the long story, read on. Because you might just be surprised by HOW powerful they are.
2. Storytelling and neuroscience: Why your brain loves stories
How does your brain react to stories?
First of all, your brain remembers stories 22 times better than facts.
In one study, researchers asked students to make a persuasive pitch. The students used about 2.5 statistics in their pitches. Only 1/10 used stories.
When the researchers asked the audience to write down what they remembered from the pitches, 5% remembered statistics. A whopping 63% remembered stories.
But there’s more to it.
Research shows that parts of the brain that process language (Broca’s and Wernicke’s area) light up when you’re presented with just facts.
You understand the facts, but you don’t feel them.
But when you hear a story, other parts of the brain get activated.
According to a study published in NeuroImage, describing emotions and senses activates parts of the brain that process these things. For example, words like “coffee” and “perfume” activate parts of the brain that process smells.
When more areas light up in our brain, it interprets the story as if you were there.
So stories impact the brain more than just pure facts. They make you feel.
#1: How we’re steered by our emotions… Not our rational mind
But why is this important?
First, emotions impact our decision-making.
Actually, let me rephrase that….
Emotions steer our decision-making.
Our emotional brain makes our decisions. Our rational brain then rationalizes why we made that decision.
Second, emotions make us care.
Stories make us more empathetic towards others. We basically experience what the protagonist of a story experiences because our brain interprets it that way.
#2: Want to get inside someone’s mind? Use stories
You know those tinfoil hats that are supposed to protect you from the Illuminati and aliens?
See, no tinfoil hat is going to shield you from stories.
A study at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania produced two versions of a marketing pamphlet for Save The Children. One included only facts and stats. The other included a story of a child facing malnutrition, as well as facts and stats.
Study subjects were given $5 and asked if they wanted to donate money to the cause. Those who read the story and facts and stats gave almost 2X more ($2.38) than those who only read facts and stats ($1.43).
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Well, get this. Research shows that when we hear stories, the same parts of the brain light up in us as in the storyteller:
When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.
So stories help you forge a personal connection with your audience.
They help you give context and meaning to what you want to communicate. They make people feel what you feel, think what you think, and remember what you remember.
Put simply, stories help you get inside your audience’s mind.
3. What is business storytelling?
The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come. – Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs knew how to tell a good story. Today, Apple is a company that truly understands why our brains crave storytelling in marketing. It just so happens to be the biggest company in the world.
The same goes for any big brand. Starbucks, Coca Cola… You name it.
Storytelling is one of the simplest persuasion tools in your toolbox.
With stories, you can make your customers:
- See how your product fits into their lives
- Make them feel so they take action
- Make your business stand out and stick itself to your customer’s mind.
Dogfish Head Ale, the microbrewery that helped launch the micro brewery revolution, was founded upon a brand story that describes who it is as much as what they do, along with a product line of beers each with its own story. Whether it’s capturing the essence of the Grateful Dead or the moss of Ireland in its American Beauty and Shelter Pale ales, storytelling that takes the essence of the brand beyond the product to a deep emotional connection with the consumer is at the heart of its runaway success. – Billee Howard
Billee Howard is the founder of the consultancy Brandthropologie and author of “WE-commerce” (2015), a book on collaboration in the new economy.
Storytelling in business improves pretty much all your copy and marketing material – pitches, presentations, ads, blog posts, sales pages and so forth.
It’s not enough to give the information and details about what you do. If you really want to make that stick in your customer’s mind, tell a story around it. So for example, instead of just telling what services you offer, explain what that looks like to the customer. If you’re offering a massage, then you could talk about how they’ll be greeted when they get there, what the room looks like, what kind of sensory experience they’re going to have from using your product or from using your service. – Amy Harrison
Amy Harrison is a copywriter based in the UK and the founder of HarrisonAmy copywriting.
Storytelling helps your customer understand why your product matters
Storytelling gives meaning to things.
Take an experiment by Significant Objects.
The founders of Significant Objects bought objects from thrift stores (average price? $1.25).
They wanted to prove that stories give meaning to objects…
And prove it, they did.
Every object was sold on Ebay. But instead of a generic description, they were paired with a short story.
Significant Objects sold $128.74 worth of objects for $3612.51.
The highest valued object was a globe paperweight ($1.49) that sold for $197.50.
Or take this “Tiny Jar of Mayo”. They got it for free… and sold it for $51.
Want more business storytelling examples? Here you go:
Storytelling example #1:
This ad from 1926 by John Caples is one of the most successful ads ever.
The ad was for the U.S. School of Music and it is written as if retelling a student experience.
Spot anything interesting?
Yup, it’s a story.
In the ad, the protagonist (student) proves his doubters wrong when he shows off his piano skills. To be on the top of the world, to get people to admire you… now that’s a powerful emotion.
And it’s all communicated seamlessly with this story ad.
Storytelling example #2:
This review of Amazon’s Alexa is one of the best customer testimonials I’ve ever come across.
If it doesn’t tell a compelling story, I don’t know what does.
Storytelling example #3:
Now, this Instagram post by fashion giant H&M resonates with its target audience.
Its target customer sees a story in this post – overcoming the hurdle of finding the perfect outfit and having a great night out.
The result of telling a story in your copy?
Your business grows because your story sticks.
- Storytelling evokes emotions. We are more empathetic when we hear stories.
- Emotion steers our decision-making. Stories make us take action.
- What is business storytelling? It’s the reason companies like Apple and Starbucks have built such lucrative brands. With storytelling, you explain why your customer needs your business.
In Chapter 2, you’ll learn what it takes to create a memorable story.