Why Storytelling Means Business
By resident story addict Jessica Holmes
Storytelling. It’s the next new thing—the business buzzword now making headlines in Forbes and Adweek. It’s also literally a tale as old as time.
After creating and running Story Story Night, a wildly popular live storytelling program in Boise for the past 6+ years, I know one thing holds true. Stories spark surprising magic and meaning in people like they’re a profound new revelation. And this only happens because we’re anciently wired for storytelling.
Science now shows us how. Storytelling lights up the entire brain in a totally electric way. Dopamine, oxytocin, and cortisol release with this emotionally-charged event—making it easier to recall the moment later (with feeling). Mirroring causes listeners to experience similar brain activity to each other and the speaker. Neural coupling activates areas in the brain that allow us to fuse the story with our own ideas and experiences. It’s more than a head-rush, it’s a totally integrated mind-body story-gasm.
In advertising, story sells even better than sex—if you use it to your ultimate advantage. Why? Because no one wants to read your dull, jargon filled copy. (Not even your mom.) But everyone wants to hear a good story. And when they do, it infuses a deeper level of meaning and magic into your brand that nothing else could.
So on that note, here are three crucial elements that make up a good story—pressure tested in real life on both the stage and the page—that you can apply to your business.
A brand is a personality. Just like at a dinner party, who would you rather talk to, the generic suit who yammers on about his boring spreadsheets? Or that charismatic character with a sense of humor, or intelligence, or purpose, who just draws you in like the most interesting man in the world (shout out to the epic storytelling of Dos Equis). This doesn’t mean taking on a wishy-washy surface persona, either, it’s about diving deep into what makes you tick as a brand, a product, a company. It’s about expressing your core values in a uniquely human way. Then pinpointing an authentic voice that resonates and stands strong over the course of time, throughout all marketing mediums.
A compelling arch.
It took me two years of monthly shows to really pinpoint what makes a story work, every time, and what leads a story to fall flat. In a recent TEDxBoise talk, I compare storytelling to a wave. A story should build in tension to a surprising turning point moment, when everything comes to head, and the action turns around then finds quick resolution. To make this actually make sense, let me tell you a story about one of my absolute favorite clients from my self-employed era, TSheets. The company really broke through in national press like Forbes and the Huffington Post when the CEO Matt Rissell got real, and started talking about the way gut-wrenching failure intrinsically shaped his startup, and his resolve. It’s the difference between “We’re the best at everything, always” versus “We’ve been through tough times in real life and it made us better.” What would you believe and respond to more? So find a surprising moment or insight that people can relate to, then build up to it. This is really the basis of what every great ad is about, often boiled down into a striking visual, a headline, and a call to action.
Stick the landing.
I know what kills a story dead in its tracks, too. Even a really great story will tank if the end turns into a repetitive or off-track ramble. In our workshops for Story Story Night, I tell storytellers that they need to stick the landing like a gymnast. Precise, bold. A clear, distinctive finish. Spandex glistening and hands confidently up in the air (at least in your mind). For me, figuring out the take-away and land line is the hardest part, because it’s the most important. The last words you say can shape the purpose of your entire story. The landing should be a memorable line that sums up the overall meaning, and hopefully sticks in someone’s head. For example, in The Great Gatsby, it’s “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” For Dos Equis, it’s “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
Now that we’ve reached the end, I really need a killer line here. But I’ll give you a killer statistic instead. Before “the most interesting man in the world” campaign, Dos Equis was a low-profile brand sold mostly in Texas and California. Now, it’s the sixth best-selling imported beer in America—more than doubling sales. And that, my friends, is how storytelling means business.