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Articles.

Riffs on marketing and writing ––

The lost art of storytelling: How to tell a powerful story that turns readers into customers.

The art of storytelling

Humans have been telling stories since 15,000 B.C. as a way to connect, entertain and pass along important information. In fact, we've been telling stories for so many years that it has become ingrained in our DNA... evolution has literally wired our brains for storytelling.

Thousands and thousands of years of sharing and listening to stories has given the art of storytelling some unfathomable power.

When we tell a story, the person listening can actually synchronize with us. Uri Hasson, professor of psychology at Princeton, gave an exceptional TED Talk where he explained the magical effects of storytelling...

"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."

But besides synchronization, stories have become so much a part of us that we actually think in stories. We tell stories to explain how things work. We tell stories to help us make decisions. We tell stories to justify the decisions we make. We even tell stories to create our own identities.

Unfortunately, as businesses have taken more of a data-driven approach to marketing, brands are beginning to view people as numbers and statistics versus living breathing individuals hungry for a damn good story... 

And, while I think marketing can certainly be enhanced with data, I believe it should begin and end with the art of storytelling. In fact, I would venture to say that 50% of marketing is understanding these two ideas:

  1. Every customer is the hero of their own story. 
  2. Every customer makes decisions that align with the story (or stories) they are telling themselves. 

While these ideas might seem rudimentary, it is imperative for every marketer and advertiser to understand them on a deep level. Let's (to use a business buzzword) unpack this further, shall we? 

The customer and the power of storytelling

To us more sane individuals, Hitler seemed like a bat-shit crazy power hungry evil genius... but in his mind, he was a hero. Why? Because he was the hero of his own story. 

Thankfully for your customer service team, the folks you're marketing to aren't a bunch of Adolf's running around with tiny mustaches. But, regardless, this idea still stays fairly consistent (save for the murder and all that horrendous mess).

When you understand that your customers are the heroes of their own stories and that they make decisions that align with these stories, they no longer seem to behave like irrational primates but rather logical and intelligent human beings. 

Instead of viewing the customer interaction with our marketing goggles on, where our thoughts are influenced by our own bias, we must view the world through the customer's goggles. While it is by no means mind-reading, it's arguably the closest thing we've got. 

Perhaps the greatest piece of insight we learn from this shift in perspective is that our customers never buy from us but rather they buy for themselves. Again, a simple idea, but one often overlooked. 

If more marketers and entrepreneurs were aware of the fact that their customer's made buying decisions as heroes of their own stories, we would see less "about us" storytelling that reads like... 

"The Cumberland Saw Mill was founded in 1912 by the Cumberland Brothers who prided themselves on supplying America with wood..." 

And, instead, we would see powerful storytelling focused on the customer rather than me, me, me and more meeeeeee

There is no "i" in story.

I was at a business event a few weeks back where myself and a handful of other individuals were conversing over a cocktail.

Conversation flowed smoothly as our drinks dwindled with each passing sip and the alcohol began to melt away our nerves. 

That is until a woman at our table, whom we will call Janice, started talking about herself with such a tremendous level of enthusiasm that an eavesdropper would not have been wrong in assuming she was recording notes for her very own autobiography.

When the conversation would naturally drift away from Janice and her business and her accomplishments, she would not-so-nonchalantly redirect it back to herself, her business and her accomplishments.… again and again and again

After about twenty minutes of this, most everyone had had enough of Janice and the conversation sort of dried up like a stranded earthworm on a slab of pavement. All of us exchanged our business cards, shook hands and parted ways... and if I were to guess... nobody called Janice. 

Now, I know what you're thinking, Cole sure is giving this Janice gal a hard time.

Well, to be honest, neither Janice nor the story about Janice is real.

I created it to further demonstrate why most marketers, entrepreneurs and business individuals are bad storytellers and to depict just how captivating a story can be.

Now, back to make-believe Janice... 

While Janice isn't real in this particular story, you reading this right now have friends like Janice or work with people like Janice –– individuals who are obsessed with themselves and their accomplishments and just can’t seem to get enough of the subject.

While they’re not bad people, they’re self-centeredness never fails to suck the energy out of the room, leaving in its place both a never-ending pile of “I’s” and “Me’s” and an unpleasant energy in the air that feels not unlike a bad fart smells. 

As marketers, we have a bad habit of acting like Janice when it comes to how we market our brands and tell our stories to our prospective readers. 

Like Janice, we view the customer as a character in our own story versus the other way around.

Some of this can be blamed on Silicon Valley's continuous idolization of the “God-like” entrepreneurs building tomorrow’s tech companies, but much of this mentality can simply be attributed to being human –– we are designed to view the world through our own eyes, walk the world in our own shoes and perceive the world with our own brains. 

However, if we can overcome this, we have a real shot at telling powerful stories our customers can connect with. In fact, here's how you do it. 

How to tell a story that your customers actually want to read.

I would like to begin this section by saying that it is sort-of a work-in-progress (everything I do is a work-in-progress). I'm still figuring out the best way to put this marketing meets storytelling thing into words. So, please bear with me –– I pinky-promise I will let you know once I have it down pat. However, here are a few things I've found that have worked when taking a stab at powerful storytelling –– whether that be via email, video, "about us" copy, etc.

1. Make the story less about you. 

I touched on this quite a bit in the previous section, but it is so important to avoid creating a world for your customers that revolves around you and your brand –– it must revolve around them –– them being your customer. 

Disney is the greatest storytelling company to ever exist and it just so happens that we never watch Disney movies about Disney... we watch Disney movies about Mickey Mouse.

Why? Because people don't want to watch Disney movies about how great Disney is, they want to watch powerful storytelling they can connect with. 

2. Make the story more about them. 

So, if the story isn't about you... who does it need to be about? Well, it needs to be about the customer. Or, at the very least, an individual the customer can connect with (or even empathize with).

To create a story centered around your customer, you need to actually understand your customer. This requires understanding what goes on in their mind –– which you can read more about here.

Remember that you're not going to tell the same story to a business executive as you would to a stay-at-home dad, they're two very different customers.

3. Create a villain in your story.

While the villains we come face-to-face with outside of fiction may not be as terrifying as the ones we've read about in Harry Potter, they're still very real and very present in the lives of our customers.

Real-life villains can be literally anything. Tax-season. Lower back pain. Poor cellphone connection. Flabby belly. Etc. 

Our job as marketers is to find our customer's villains and give them the sword (our product or service) to conquer them –– more on that in the next section.  

Whatever villain your customer is fighting, you need to highlight it in the story you're telling so they can now not just empathize with the character but actually step into the character's shoes. 

4. Give the character a sharp sword, strong shield or magic wand. 

The sharp sword, the strong shield or the magic wand is your product or service that can relinquish the customer's villain (a.k.a the problem they're experiencing). Here's what this looks like... 

Villain: Tax Season | Sword: Quickbooks

Villain: Lower back pain | Shield: Aleve

Villain: Belly fat | Wand: The belly buster 2.0.

While this might sound simple, it's not. You could probably use a copywriter (wink). In all seriousness, it's not as easy as saying, "Aleve is like a shield to your lower back pain." Although, that's pretty damn good. 

Instead, you need to tell a story of your customer miserably struggling with lower back pain and discovering the shield that is Aleve... and then experiencing what life can look like pain-free.  

5. Happily ever after. 

In the case of the character fighting the villain that is lower back pain, experiencing the shield that is Aleve allows for something extraordinary that is arguably one of the most important elements in regards to the art of storytelling –– happily ever after. 

Happily ever after is when your customer uses your product or service and she kills her villain. It's when she can live happily ever after without the problem, pain or fear that has been tormenting her for years. It's when she can truly live out the story she is telling herself. 

The final part of the art of storytelling comes down to communicating this "happily ever after" in compelling (but believable) language. It's about making your customer the hero of her own story. 

Doesn't everyone want to be the hero of their own story?

By Cole Schafer.


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Cole Schafer