Why your audience wants you to tell stories with your content
and why stories are the most powerful tool in your content strategy arsenal
by Brittany Taylor
published August 1, 2015
updated May 30, 2018
¶ I have a confession to make: I am a story hoarder.
From Pocket to Evernote to Goodreads to an old-school paper file, I have stories shoved in every type of technology that could possible hold them. Will I read them all? No—yes!—well, probably not. Why? Because the great thing about stories is that there are always new ones to share and read and, sigh, hoard.
The other great thing about stories: They soar above the buzz of content that’s flooding our consciousnesses. Everywhere you turn, there is something new to read. What is it that you choose to spend your precious time reading and processing and remembering? The one with the great story.
Guess what: It’s not just you who makes that choice—your customer will, too. And here’s why.
From ho-hum to aha! moment
On my fourth day of college orientation, 350 18-year-old girls were herded into a concert hall for The Talk. Condoms, STDs, the on-campus health center—the nurse practitioner on stage dished it all. We laughed and blushed, like most girls would do. And then she whistled at us to get our attention and told us to look to our right—there was my roommate—and then to our left—and my new best friend. One of us would be raped during the next four years.
While reported statistics were that 25 percent of women were raped during college, the key word there was “reported.” Because most rapes aren’t reported, a more likely number is 30 to 50 percent. That’s a lot of rape, but if you take out the R-word and instead say that 30 percent of college kids get the flu or 50 percent of college women are on The Pill, those numbers don’t seem quite as worrisome.
But if you look at it another way, really look at the numbers, turning your head left and right to see who’s going to be painted with that percentage brush if you’re spared, those numbers suddenly seem much bigger, much more real.
How did that happen? Through a number story. One in four, one in three, one in two became a suite of college kids, a trio working on a project, a couple who met in chem lab. And as you consider the cause-effect, you start thinking about how your life could be impacted by what could have been just a series of cold, boring, ignore-able numbers.
This is the power of stories.
Why stories work
Once upon a time, storytellers were among the most revered figures in society. We’ve seen their tales carefully illustrated on cave walls in 27,000-year-old paint. We’ve heard them at bedtime when we were still young enough to be tucked in.
Then, they were modifications of 19-century Perrault and Grimm, who in turn collected and culled the centuries-old fireside stories of peasants. Stories last a long time. Stories are meant to be remembered. And while we tend to “mean” quite a lot of things, and make many things with the intent of them being remembered, relatively few last the way that stories do.
Want to make your business memorable? Tell a story.
#1. People remember stories
If we could remember everything we’d ever learned or saw or heard, we’d be set for life. But since most people can’t do that (and thanks to technology, we’re increasingly becoming not-those-people), we have to make do.
The best of those who make do are memory athletes. They range from six (think: Child Genius) to well, older than you and I combined. Their version of “making do” is using mnemonic strategies that help them craft memorable stories from weird arrays of content.***
Even for those of us who don’t perform mental feats of endurance, brain mapping has shown that stories work in much the same way. When we tell stories, this is what happens:
#2. Stories evoke emotion
Last month, I finally did it. I walked up the wide staircase at the Calhoun Street library, through the arts-and-crafts chic entrance to the teen section, thumbed my way to the G’s, and picked one of the four or five copies staring back at me. When I trooped back downstairs and slid the blue-covered book across the counter, the librarian’s eyes lit up instantly. She peppered me with questions: “Have you read it yet? Have you seen the movie? No? You’ll need tissues.”
I smiled, went back home, and dove into the forerunner of sick lit, The Fault in Our Stars. A few hours later, I was bawling all over my t-shirt.
I laughed—out loud, to the surprise of my passed-out pups at 2 a.m. I bawled—to the irritation of those same pups. I laughed more. And then mostly, I bawled. By the time I was done, I was exhausted.
Strong stories take us on emotional journeys. In fiction, these emotions draw on our own past experiences so that we can relate to the novel’s characters—put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak. In nonfiction, effective storytellers do much the same thing, but often with a more targeted focus.
Why targeted? Simple: The storyteller isn’t telling the story just because it’s a good yarn. There’s something more there. In terms of marketing, that “something” is usually a problem that your product or service can solve. Whether you’re saving money or saving lives or saving time, there is always an emotional aspect that can bring the customer to your door. And through storytelling, you can crack that emotion and use it to bring in new leads and acquire new clients.
In fact, emotion can be the element that separates you from your competitors:
While functional, fact-based criteria clearly influence decision-making, it is equally true that the difference in sales between competing products, whether they be Coke and Pepsi, Adidas and Nike, or Toyota and Ford, is heavily influenced by highly subjective and personal impulses that might best be described as feelings, affects or biases for one brand over another. – Linus Group
#3. Emotion leads to action
When was the last time you donated to a cause you cared about? Mine was just a few weeks ago, when I was pulling myself out of the Wikipedia vortex and back into the work day.
The more I write for different markets about different topics, the more I’ve come to rely on Wikipedia for a very basic understanding of what it is I’m looking at. It’s hugely valuable to me as a first-stop resource. So when a neon yellow pop-up forced me to consider what my writing life would be like if Wikipedia were to disappear because of lack of funding, I decided to put my money where my research was.
This wasn’t a data-backed decision. I have no idea how essential my quarterly donation will be to the Wikimedia Foundation. I have no clue how much money they pull in each year through that alarming yellow pop-up. I haven’t the faintest notion of how close Wikipedia is to evaporating into the Internet ether.
This decision was about how I felt. If Wikipedia closed and I had been able to prevent it from doing so with a donation, I would be disappointed in my lack of action. Beyond that, I would be disappointed that the millions of users it has worldwide hadn’t shown up to support it by paying for a service many use multiple times a day.
If Robert Plutchnik had been there, of course, he’d have rolled his eyes and uttered the ‘80’s equivalent of “duh.” The late psychologist mastered the study of emotions. During his career, he isolated eight essential ones:
¶ The combination of these base-line emotions creates what he calls “human feelings,” and it’s these feelings that encourage us to take action.
¶ In my Wikipedia example, my brain instantaneously combined surprise (Wikipedia can go away?!) with sadness (How much would that suck?!) to create disapproval. I didn’t like the future Wikipedia’s yellow pop-up presented, so I took action to make sure that it didn’t come to fruition. (And darnit, it better not.)
What does all this have to do with you? Well, you, too, can use emotions to create a desired response. By presenting a story—even the suggestion of one that allows readers to fill in the blanks—you can touch on parts of the brain that are the most likely sources of action.
Storytelling and viral content
It’s not the mystery viral content creators want you to think that it is. Most of the content that goes viral mines two emotions: happiness (think: videos of cats in boxes and babies dancing, stories about mystery investors) and disgust (think: photos of receipts with nasty comments, stories about celebrities caught lying about something important, videos of police officers doing illegal things).
Why do we share these things so readily? Because we want to make other people we know smile, or because we want to prevent that disgusting thing from happening again, through awareness or shame. Both are effective, and not just for unbranded content.
Viral is for you, too
Heavily branding emotional content limits its sharing potential—that is a fact. But that doesn’t mean brands haven’t told viral stories. So long as you bring the story to the forefront and focus on a tale that touches your brand, you can have a piece of the pie. Don’t believe me? AT&T and Dove have done it. You can, too.
Viral isn’t the end-all, be-all of content
If your focus is local or niche, you don’t need to hit millions of views to be effective. Target your audience. Consider what they care about. Get in the door with a good story. Then, appeal to their emotions.
Trust me, you can do this.
Storytelling is an art, but the gatekeepers aren’t holding you back anymore from mining its potential. If you want to connect with a potential customer on a personal level, there is no better way to reach them than through emotion-driven story telling. From blogging to team member bios to case studies to social media, the opportunities are endless. It’s time to ask yourself, “What’s MY story?”
The science of emotion in marketing, via BufferSocial »
Why our brains crave storytelling in marketing, via Fast Company »
My name is Brittany, but my friends and clients call me "Britt." Online small business owners hire me to create content strategies and write their blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates. I work with bosses around the world from the marshes of Charleston, S.C.