When I went freelance in 2012, the question arose of what I should call myself. (I know what some other people would like to call me, but I’m being professional here.) Over the years, I’d become known (and employed) as a copywriter, social media manager, blogger, journalist, digital marketer, SEO writer, event speaker, workshop trainer and communications manager. Popping just one of those titles on my business card or LinkedIn profile could seriously limit how people viewed my abilities.
The title I eventually chose was “Storyteller”. At some level, each of these roles drew upon my ability to build a narrative to get a message across. Storytelling was the common thread that inspired my approach to most situations. The worst that could happen, I told myself, would be that someone would see my card and ask what I meant by “storyteller”, giving me the opportunity to explain.
Unfortunately, “storytelling” went on to become one of those horrible marketing buzzwords I despise. By 2014, digital storytelling was definitely a thing; which, because Gartner’s hype cycle is also definitely a thing, led to the inevitable trough of disillusionment and backlash in 2015. Suddenly, there were articles arguing that storytelling was merely the latest fad with no strategic value; an overstated trend in marketing creativity that should go the way of flared jeans and platform shoes. Sure, the critics agreed, storytelling has been with us since Ugg first decided to depict his hunting adventures on a cave wall; but that doesn’t mean we should take it seriously, they said.
Meh. I’m not about to redo my business cards (I’ve still got a couple of boxes to get through yet). Yes, storytelling shouldn’t be defined in relation to the latest app or other digital development; that’s something the critics and I agree on. However, that isn’t because I think such claims overstate the power of story, but that they greatly understate it.
The Language of the Brain
I still believe storytelling is far more than just another optional creative choice. It goes beyond language (something else increasingly treated as an optional extra in some places).
Stories tap into the ways in which our brains process information by interpreting context, relevance and meaning. Without meaning, we can’t predict possible outcomes, and our ability to imagine and predict outcomes is how we make decisions. In many ways, stories replicate the brain’s continual hunt for meaning, providing a framework to guide our attitudes, beliefs and decisions.
What is a great value proposition if not a basic form of story? When M&M’s uses the line “The chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hand” the brand has told you a very simple story, complete with a protagonist (you), a goal (chocolate) a barrier to overcome (messy hands) and an outcome (yummy). It could have just listed the candy shell and left it to the reader to interpret the significance, and many brands do just that. They list features and even describe vague benefits without relating them back to the specific and personal experience of the reader.
Storytelling is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters.
Lisa Cron: Wired For Story
The Internal Storyteller
Even when we’re not presented with a story, our brains create one to help us to interpret the information, fill in the gaps and find relevant meaning.
If I’m shopping around for external hard drives, I might assess the various pieces of information provided to me by the marketers. Unfortunately, IT products are particularly notorious for providing raw information without any true context. They often rely too heavily on the technical specifications to sell the product. While I can compare price, appearance and other such features, these don’t tell me a great deal about my potential experience of the product. So how does my brain assess this raw information to decide which hard drive to purchase?
While the 3TB drive looks like a good deal, the 2TB drive is cheaper, leaving me enough to buy that new Doctor Who DVD as well. Tempting …
Hang on, though. Perhaps I’m working with more video than before, requiring me to store many larger files. So, if I buy the 2TB drive, I will probably fill it up and need to buy another drive in just a few months. The 3TB drive should last me longer, putting off the need to buy another drive until next year and stretching my dollar further. Maybe I should choose the 3TB drive …
But … I’m not familiar with that brand. I might not get the performance I’m used to. Having had a hard drive fail on me before, losing valuable data, this leads me to imagine a third option. Because the 2TB drive is cheaper, I could spend a bit more and buy two, allowing me to set up a redundant backup routine to protect my data if and when one should fail.
My brain just imagined three different scenarios – stories – to make sense of the information, apply context, assess its relevance to me, attempt to predict future outcomes and thereby help me to form a decision. If you were the marketer of the 3TB drive, you would prefer me to consider and imagine the second scenario. But because I’m only presented with raw information without context, the marketer has no way of ensuring I even think of that scenario, let alone consider it.
The decision isn’t based on a rational, dispassionate comparison of product specs. Most product comparisons are apples and oranges when it comes down to it. Do you care more about price or size, appearance or performance, colour or shape, trust in an established brand or the need to support new local startups? And how do you prioritise each of those? There is no right or wrong here, but by only providing raw information, the marketers of these hard drives have far less influence over the purchasing decision than they might hope (or their job description would suggest).
That’s why marketers need to tell stories, to suggest a relevant context that mere ‘facts’ such as tech specs and comparisons lack.
Within the brain, things are always evaluated within a specific context. So, as marketers and public relations specialists have long recognised, it’s important to always retain control of the context in which information is first learned.
Richard Restak, The Naked Brain
We’re not even always conscious that our brains are doing it. We remember the decision we took and may even remember the information that informed it. We may believe that a decision was entirely rational—the inevitable result of cold, hard logic. But that’s simply a form of choice-supportive bias.
In reality, stories are the working-out-in-the-margins that arrange the mess of information into an argument or idea that makes sense to us.
Our brains are storytellers, not computers
The M&M’s tagline might not have three acts and a complete hero’s journey structure of villains, mentors and obstacles. But those things only become necessary when your story is more complex, conveys many points or has to keep your attention for a longer period. There are many, many examples of short stories told in just a few words. Just because they don’t follow the same academic structures doesn’t make them any less so. Why? Because the story doesn’t exist on the page, but in the mind.
This is why I regularly use anecdotes and scenarios in my content, to give context to my information and ideas, including the opening of this post. Sure, I could have written this post as a banal five point listicle on why storytelling is important, sticking to the facts and statistics while linking to a few well-known examples, all presented with a clinical objectivity – but the irony would have killed me. From experience, I also know it would be far less readable and persuasive.
As the old writer’s maxim goes, “Show, don’t tell”. Instead of simply presenting the facts or stating what I think in the hope you will understand, I illustrate with stories.
Storytelling is part of the comprehension process, whether you like it or not. If stories are the language of our brains, how else should we want to communicate?