It can also be a technique or a method of achieving something, especially in marketing. But it’s an art, first and foremost.
So, how do you ensure you’re doing storytelling right? The answer is both simple and not: through vision, skill, creativity, and above all, practice. You can’t grasp storytelling by watching a couple of YouTube videos or grasp its most important concepts in one sitting. To achieve mastery, you’ll have to go through a long trial-and-error process.
And if all of this sounds like a lot of work — that’s because it is. However, becoming intricately familiar with storytelling in marketing means having a huge competitive edge. Stories have been a crucial component of the majority of the most successful marketing campaigns in all industries.
If you want to know the difference between a business and a brand, it’s right there: a brand has a story. And this story is what will separate one-time customers from loyal return shoppers.
Brands that constantly generate new revenue through inbound marketing know the immense value of storytelling — which is why it’s a tool you want in your marketing belt. And with that in mind, we’ve compiled an extensive guide on storytelling. We’ll take you from the basics of general storytelling to its application in marketing.
Once you start applying the principles we’ll describe below successfully, you’ll be able to weave compelling, inviting tales that speak to your target audience.
So, without further ado — let’s dive in!
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of storytelling, we’d do well to start our own story at the proper place: the beginning.
And as always, the beginning is a simple question: what is storytelling?
Simply put, it’s a process. And that process entails using a combination of narrative and fact to communicate a message to your audience. Narrative, fact, and message; these are the building blocks of any great marketing story. And their mutual proportions in the story depend on the specifics of your brand.
Some stories are completely fanciful — others are improvised, and even more of them are embellished. However, all of them serve the purpose of explaining your brand’s core message.
This is a pretty broad definition, of course; in practice, stories can be a variety of things. So, let’s take a look at some of the things that a story ISN’T:
● A long article — the sole fact that you’ve put together a few thousand words doesn’t mean you’ve got a great story. From the perspective of your audience, a story is useful info told in the form of a narrative. And “useful” is the operative word here.
● Your sales goals — When you’re creating the story of your brand, don’t just focus on the end goal. A great story requires authenticity, and you won’t seem authentic if your storytelling is focused on meeting a specific sales goal. Instead, try to think of what motivates your team to do their best work and create a narrative from that.
● An advertisement — While your advertisements can (and should) contain storytelling, not every ad is a story. However, an ad that explains what your brand stands for in a creative way is a better example of a story.
● About you — Remember, in marketing and sales, everything is about your customers. And that includes your storytelling efforts. So, try to make a narrative about your customers, instead of solely focusing on your brand. Start from the customers’ needs your brand is fulfilling, and let the story flow from there.
● Boring — This may seem like a “duh” moment; but always take care not to create a boring story. Your goal is for your target audience to engage with the story; so it has to be engaging and emotional.
● A sales pitch — When marketers or business people start working on their brand narrative, it’s easy to veer into the position of writing a simple sales pitch. There’s a reason why these are two different things: a sales pitch is just that, an attempt to get people to buy a product or a series of products. On the other hand, your brand narrative is a long-term interaction with your customers — it’s your positioning in the lives of your target audience. The story is supposed to elevate your brand and increase brand loyalty, not advertise a specific service or product.
Storytelling isn’t something strictly related to marketing, or even business. We’ve enjoyed storytelling as an art form from the dawn of humankind — it’s had a significant place in every society and culture.
And the reason why is simple: across all cultures, stories are a universal way to convey messages, values, and events. Regardless of hometown, dialect, or religious and cultural heritage — everyone understands the basic trappings of a well-told story.
Also, stories stimulate our imaginations and deepest passion — creating a bond and a community between tellers and listeners. That’s the part that’s most important for elevating your brand in the eyes of the target audience; it’s how you’ll make yourself memorable among countless other competitors.
So, what is it like to tell a story?
Think about it, and you already know the answer — it’s like using words to paint a beautiful picture. And just like everyone can pick up a brush or a pen, anyone can start telling a story — but being an effective storyteller on behalf of a business, brand, or organization is a skill that needs a lot of work and practice.
That’s why there are countless professionals whose sole job it is to create and tell stories in different formats, or to work on a certain aspect of a common story — PR professionals, marketers, copywriters, content writers, scriptwriters, etc.
There are a bunch of different reasons why you might want to tell a story — to entertain, sell, educate, or even to brag. But why are stories such a powerful format? Why are they more effective at conveying a message compared to, say, a bulleted list, or a data-filled PowerPoint presentation? Certainly, creating a compelling story is more difficult — but why is it necessary for explaining, sharing, and selling information?
Great stories can solidify and concretize abstract concepts — but they can also help us simplify complex and difficult-to-understand messages.
Think about it — how many times have you been confused when presented with a new idea? That didn’t happen because the idea itself was impossible to understand; it’s all about the format and the presentation.
Stories provide the perfect format for conveying concepts you’d have a hard time understanding otherwise. That’s why all great teachers use simple, real-life examples when going through math problems — and it’s also why preachers often use anecdotes in their sermons. Or, in the business world, it’s why speakers refer to case studies to drive home their point — certainly much more effectively than they would with just pure data.
Stories make non-tangible, lofty concepts more relatable, and that’s one of their most important advantages from a business perspective.
When people debate why Steve Jobs was so important, this is always the solution to people’s dilemmas about this titan of personal computing. After all, he wasn’t much of a coder — and he wasn’t a designer by trade, though he had great taste in design.
Instead, the value of Steve Jobs was his immense power to create and convey stories that would go on to captivate the hearts and minds of consumers everywhere — from Massachusetts to Malaysia.
After all, smartphones and personal computers weren’t exactly an easy topic for the average consumer — at least when Jobs did most of his work. However, he was a masterful storyteller — using real-life people, situations, and values to show precisely how his products could be beneficial to all users. Steve Jobs wouldn’t go on stage wielding pages upon pages of technical jargon impressive to a small minority and unintelligible to everyone else — he simply kept telling stories.
And as we’ve mentioned above, stories are a universal format. People all around the world all understand a story about heartbreak, or the rise of the underdog, or the thrilling success of a hero. No matter where we’re from, we process emotions in a similar way — we’re all equally prone to hope, elation, anger, and despair.
That’s another reason why stories represent the essence of modern, global marketing. Sharing a common story gives even the most different people a sense of community and commonality. Despite our political preferences, ethnicity, religion, or language, we feel connected by stories.
Essentially, storytelling makes us human.
And they do the same thing for brands! Once your brand becomes authentic and transparent, and it starts showing that it has certain values and messages — it becomes more down-to-earth and approachable for consumers; just like people.
Creating a narrative around your product line or brand doesn’t just humanize it — it also markets your entire business to the target audience in the process. When you tap into people’s emotions, you can motivate, inspire, and ultimately, drive action.
Of course, all of this is true as long as you build a great story around your brand. And as you probably know from experience, not all brands manage to do this.
Good, bad, fun, boring — they’re all relative, depending on individual tastes and opinions. However, that doesn’t mean that every story is both great and terrible. In reality, there are a couple of traits of a great story that are just non-negotiable. They make for a thrilling storytelling experience, for both the reader and the storyteller.
Good stories are:
● Entertaining — a story has to keep the reader engaged, and fully interested in the part that’s coming next.
● Educational — a decent story will spark a reader’s curiosity while adding to their personal knowledge bank.
● Universal — a great story is great for everyone; it’s something anyone can relate to, because it goes past people’s differences and taps into the experiences and emotions that most people have.
● Memorable — regardless of whether it’s through humor, scandal, or inspiration, a great story will stay with the reader long after it’s been told.
● Organized — a well-crafted story is tightly organized, which helps it get its message across to readers who can absorb it more easily.
If you’re wondering about the individual components of the average well-written story, those are:
● Characters — You can’t have a story without at least a single character, because they are key to keeping your story relatable to the audience. Indeed, characters are the bridge between your audience and you — the storyteller. If you come up with a character whose woes and resolution are instantly relatable to the audience, they’ll be far more likely to follow your call-to-action in the end.
● Conflict — Conflict is what makes a story interesting, and what provides your character(s) with a challenge to overcome. Having an intriguing conflict in your story means eliciting emotions and getting through to your audience through a relatable experience. If your story has no conflict, issue, or challenge — it’s really not a story in the first place. And conflict is also a prerequisite for resolution.
● Resolution — Every great story comes to a close. And that closing part is essential to the emotion you’ll be leaving your audience with, once it’s over. In a brand-building story, your goal is to wrap up the narrative threads, give characters and their issues some context, and leave the target audience with a compelling call to action.
So, now you know what goes into a good story. But how do you craft these elements well in the storytelling process?
By now, we’ve already mentioned that storytelling is an art a bunch of times.
But that fact becomes important once more, as we delve into the storytelling process.
Every artist has their own creative process, which they follow while producing their art — from potters and sketch artists to sculptors, painters, and copywriters. It helps them by giving them a firm starting point, guidelines for developing their vision, and of course, a way to perfect their work over time.
The same thing is true for storytelling — particularly when businesses work on the story of their brand.
So, why is this process so vital? Well, because any brand or organization has tons of figures, facts, and messages that they want to convey to their audience in one story.
With so much data, how do you know where to start? Don’t worry — we’ll discuss the individual steps of the storytelling process in depth.
Know your audience
Before you can start telling your story — you need to know who you’re telling it to. Who will respond to it the most, and who stands to benefit from it? If you want your story to be compelling, you should understand your readers in more depth.
Before your pen touches paper — or, more likely, your fingers touch a keyboard — do extensive research on your target audience. As a marketer or someone aided by marketers, you need to work on your buyer persona(s).
In this process, you will become intimately acquainted with the category of people who will be viewing, reading, or listening to your content. So, ask yourself these questions:
● Is there a specific language, voice, or tone that your target audience expects? If they don’t, do you what kind of tone they’d like to hear and would respond to?
● Are there any specific content formats that they engage with more? After all, there’s no shortage of different content in the digital age — but different buyer personas spend more time interacting with different types of content.
● Where will they engage with your story? This is an oft-skipped part of brand storytelling, but it’s still a critical one. Will your target audience engage with your content at their desks during work hours, or in their free time over the weekend? Knowing that means you’ll know what kind of emotions you’re trying to invoke.
● What are their pain points? Remember, at the end of the day, any business is there to somehow solve a specific set of problems for their target audience. And knowing precisely what your audience’s concerns are means you’ll know what to address with your story.
If you find yourself unable to answer these four questions when you start working on your story, go a step back and figure them out. Your buyer personas will likely be of use here — but you’ll still need to do some thinking to find the right answers to everything.
There are plenty of good examples of great storytelling that stem from excellent targeting. Take a look at some of the previous marketing campaigns done by the marketing folks working for John Deere, the famous agricultural manufacturing company.
Instead of focusing on their machines and their various performance stats, Deere always focuses on a single principle: leading with their customers. In fact, the spotlight is almost never on their machines — it’s always about what value the company brings to its target audience, and how it makes their lives easier and more prosperous. And you’ll find that their marketing is filled with blue-collar messages written for blue-collar workers — because they know who their end-users are.
Speaking of messages — you’re going to need to define and refine your core message.
Regardless of how long your story is or what format you’re using to tell it — it needs to come with a punchy, relatable, and strong core message. And just like the foundation needs to be built before you start decorating your house — you need to establish the core message before you move forward.
So, what are you essentially trying to achieve with your story? Are you showcasing your valuable services or advocating for a specific issue? Are you raising funds, or selling a product — or perhaps an entire line of products? What is your company doing right now?
You need to be able to summarize this in six to ten words, at most. If you need any more to explain your core message, it’s not a core message; go back to the drawing board.
Your core message isn’t the only point of your story that you need to figure out in advance. You should also decide what you want your audience to do after interacting with the story, or how you want them to feel.
Unlike the core message that builds your brand around a certain value or works towards a long-term goal, this objective is something more imminent, such as:
● Inciting action — your story could describe how a certain action led to success on part of the target audience in the past, and how your current readers might do the same. Avoid exaggerated, sales-heavy details and excessive bragging. Let the audience focus on the change or action that the story leads to, and they’ll be more likely to follow the CTA.
● Sharing information — telling people about your brand, or even yourself; something that features genuine, human failures, struggles, and ultimately, wins. In today’s world, consumers always appreciate a humanized brand that they can connect to — which is why authenticity in storytelling is always important.
● Conveying values — weaving a story that taps into familiar situations, emotions, and characters. This allows readers or viewers to relate and apply the story to their own lives. And when you’re discussing values that people might not understand immediately, this is even more crucial.
● Fostering a community — you may be telling a story that nudges readers towards sharing and discussing the story with their peers. In this case, make sure to keep the characters, situations, and values as neutral as possible to attract the largest number of people to your growing community.
● Educating — perhaps your story is there to impart knowledge about your company, or its products and services. In that case, you may want to use a story that contains a trial-and-error experience, leading readers on a journey while discovering how the solution was ultimately applied and discovered.
Create your call-to-action
This your CTA and your objective are two similar things — but the CTA is what shows your audience directly what action you’d like them to take after reading.
Do you want them to buy something, take a course, subscribe to your newsletter, or donate money? Whichever it is, you need to make sure your CTA and your objective are lined up for maximum efficiency.
For instance, if your objective is to build a community, one of the appropriate CTAs is “Click here to share”.
As we’ve said already, stories come in all shapes and forms. Plenty of stories are read — but just as many are watched, and some are also listened to. And the story medium you’ll choose depends on a bunch of factors: such as your target audience and your resources — mostly time and money.
With that in mind, here are some of the different formats you can use to tell your story:
● Writing — these are the stories told through books, blog posts, and articles. While they’re mostly text, they could (and should) still include imagery and visual cues. These are by far the most easily attainable and affordable story formats — producing them requires nothing more than creativity and a word processor.
● Speaking — these stories are conveyed in person, in the form of panels, pitches, and presentations. TED talks are a great example of this; though, because of their mostly unedited, live nature, these stories require a lot more skill and practice to be effective at eliciting emotions and conveying messages to others.
● Recording — this is more of a subtype of the spoken story. Audio stories are also spoken, but they’re only recorded in an audio format, which is what sets them apart. These days, they’re usually done in the form of a podcast. And today’s technology means that crafting a great audio story is extremely affordable.
● Creating — in the world of digital, you can create all kinds of multi-media experiences that incorporate multiple (or all) of the formats we’ve mentioned above. Animation, video, games, interactive stories — all of these can be extremely emotionally resonant. However, they’re the most expensive to produce as well. Though, video quality is still not as important as conveying a well-written, strong message.
Now that you’ve spent so much time working on every single aspect of your storytelling, there’s only one part of the process left — the actual writing.
However, with your audience objective, core message, and call-to-action firmly established beforehand — this final step is much easier. Now it’s all about the creative flair and details you’ll bring to the framework you’ve established above.
Okay, we lied — writing isn’t the end.
In truth, promoting and sharing your story is just as important as writing it; that whole thing about a tree falling in the woods is true.
The process of disseminating your story largely depends on the medium you’ve chosen — but in most cases, sharing via social media is a safe bet. Most content can also be promoted via email newsletters, and you can also promote your written content through guest posts on other websites, platforms like Medium, and your own blog.
Video and audio content can be shared on platforms like Vimeo and YouTube — as can live performances, once they’re over. There aren’t many rules here; you just need to remember that the more you work on sharing the product of your storytelling efforts, the more engagement you’ll receive from your target audience.
Luckily, the Internet gives us basically countless ways of distributing stories in all formats. If you’re not already sure which outlet suits your story the best, go back to your research step. See where your target audience spends the most time, and create content that’s appropriate for those platforms.
The digital era means you’ve got more flexibility in presenting your story than ever — drawings, cartoons, videos, articles; everything’s fair game, as long as your audience finds it appealing. You’re on a mission to use emerging technologies and formats to engage with your target audience — never forget that!