The proverbial power of storytelling crosses cultures and generations, but why is it such a business buzzword? Claire Taylor, a business storytelling consultant and trainer at The Story Mill, believes this focus is largely driven by technology, as new platforms create opportunities to put stories out there much more easily.
"Those who tell the stories rule the world" (Native American proverb)
This digital storytelling is indispensable for today’s online entrepreneurs, who may not want to rule the world but might, as Taylor points out, be aiming for global distribution of their products or services.
So why is storytelling so potent? It all boils down to ideas - the entrepreneur’s most valuable resource.
Robert McAfee Brown said: "Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today". In fact, according to Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, storytelling is the only way to activate certain parts of the brain that cause a listener to turn a story into their own idea and experience - a surefire way to get their support.
Hasson’s findings are fascinating, but Taylor is cautious about turning storytelling into a science: "The real power of story is in the way it connects you with your audience. Understanding the neuroscience won’t enhance your story one iota," she warns.
So what will?
Increasingly, consumers want to experience brands, to know the real story behind them, and the people and ethos that drive them. And we want that story to be authentic.
As Taylor states in her blog, "Storytelling is a way of bringing more authenticity into business". It’s also why blogs and social media recommendations are so relied on by consumers: first-person authenticity. As Taylor reminds us, most decision-making, even in business, is driven by our emotions. Storytelling is a good way of tapping into our feelings and responses, and bolstering a crucial one: trust.
Thanks to social media, today’s consumers are offered a level of openness and transparency that means brand loyalty can change in an instant. So while good storytellers can benefit from customer engagement, consumers have newfound power too - after all, the consumer is in control.
Trust makes storytelling far more than just a sales tool. As Taylor says, "Storytelling is also an incredibly useful internal communication tool - when you want to pitch an idea, for example, or engage people with a change. Used in this way, it’s a longer-term, more indirect means of engagement. For entrepreneurs looking for investment, it’s very relevant too. People think investment decisions are all about the figures - but the story of the individual, and what they’re creating, is important too."
"Good branded content can be divided into two categories: consumable and shareable," writes journalist and entrepreneur Shane Snow. "They’re not mutually exclusive, but neither are they joined at the hip." Snow defines consumable content as content that’s 'engagement-optimized'. So how can a brand achieve consumability - and therefore engagement – with its content? "Tell better stories," says Snow. "Teach better lessons. Surprise us. Keep us reading. That means, often, spending more time and thought in the ideation and production stage in order to make content more original."
Another way we can tell better stories is by personalising them. A study by PwC Digital Services revealed 94 per cent of senior executives believe delivering personalised content is important for reaching customers. And no wonder. Brands now communicate with us directly, as much part of our media stream as friends and family.
"Social media has changed the way people interact amongst themselves and with their media," writes industry expert Hank Wasiak. "Marketing has traditionally focused on the four 'Ps': Product, Price, Place and Promotion. Social media has morphed into the fifth, and possibly most important P: People.
There’s another P that’s gaining momentum with brands: Publishing. As the power of content marketing grows, many brands have also become publishers, churning out content pretty much 24/7.
Keen to build lasting connections, these brands identify themes that reflect their values but which also matter to their audience. Because if there’s one lesson social media has taught us, it’s that we can’t just broadcast our messages to customers. We are in an era when both business and consumer can expect to benefit - what corporate technologist Gunther Sonnenfeld describes as "a new Renaissance period that has moved us past selling products and services for the sole benefit of the companies selling them".
For brands, this means creating stories that transcend products and services. Taylor names Chanel as a great example of a brand story with a societal message, thanks to its creator. Coco Chanel [above], who learned to sew in a convent-run orphanage, is credited with liberating women from the constraints of corsets and popularising a more comfortable style. She said herself that "fashion is not simply a matter of clothes" - and her work has been described by TIME Magazine as "unquestionably part of the liberation of women".
As Taylor concludes, "Chanel’s story is also about pushing the boundaries for women; it’s about empowerment." So, those who tell the stories may not want to rule the world, but by engaging consumers in our brand stories, we all have the power to change it.