I am super passionate about what I do in the world of telling business and marketing stories. If you read my stuff and know me, you know I am a storytelling nerd from both the business and improv stages—and proudly!
I love that storytelling is experiencing a “corporate Renaissance” across business, social media, social entrepreneurism, and executive communications. Storytelling is so much bigger than marketing. It’s the foundation of how companies communicate who they are in the world and what they stand for. A resurgence is a great thing, and storytelling itself—the original social medium for humans—is evolving in the business world. That is a great thing.
In doing my work, in chatting with fellow story practitioners and branding execs, and in doing research for a book to be published later this year, I’ve stumbled upon what I believe (and am already experiencing) the next wave of storytelling will look like. Much of it involves getting out of the way, empowering others, and thinking bigger.
Here are seven ways to jump on that next wave and reinvigorate your organization’s storytelling for more successful marketing this year.
1. Go Deeper
Many of today’s business stories are “storytelling lite.” Your storytelling must go deeper to be more effective. Most brand storytelling today is superficial and still too corporate-oriented, rather than aimed at human needs.
The business storytelling of the future—storytelling that is successful and sustainable—must go deeper. It needs to get vulnerable, real, and drop the perfect endings. Tidy resolutions make for crummy stories.
Sometimes stories are imperfect, like people, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s great because it’s real. We’ll see more brands and companies getting real and vulnerable, and that’s a great thing! A deeper emotional connection gives a story legs.
2. Think Bigger
The storytelling of the future will have more of a “social change” component. In fact, it’s already happening—consider TOMS, Patagonia, or even IBM’s Smarter Planet for B2B. Storytelling must be bigger than the company.
In part, though not exclusively, this is a generational change. Millennials especially want to do business with companies that care (thankfully) about causes bigger than themselves. Most humans do—not just Millennials. People make choices based on social issues. Companies must not only give a crap about customers, but they must also tell transparent stories about their mission and how it affects society, not just customers’ economic situations.
Companies kicking butt here include Warby Parker, Lyft, and The Humane Society. For these companies and others like them, storytelling isn’t about creating something fake just to check a box; it’s about making sure your mission is aligned with a core purpose that is bigger than your company. Great businesses, thankfully, are always about far more than profits. It’s time to communicate that authentically through “prove it” stories.
3. Get Personal
The “corporate veil” is coming down in favor of a human frame. Part of the reason many brand stories fail to capture the imagination today is because they are still oriented around companies as protagonists. Companies can’t be protagonists.
People don’t care about companies. They care about people. You can’t hug or thank a company—though we’ve all wanted to slap companies! People can’t seem themselves reflected in a story about a faceless organization.
Great, emotional brand storytelling must be told through the lens of a person: a specific customer, a passionate employee, or a dedicated partner. Every great company story must be anchored in a human story and told through a personal human lens. Anchor your stories through real people, and you’ll see a big difference in your storytelling.
4. Know Your Best Storytellers
Great storytelling is becoming decentralized both inside and outside the organization. Story stewardship is becoming every employee’s responsibility, and it’s the C-suite’s job to keep the fire lit.
The best storytellers are often not in the C-suite. We know from studies like the Edelman Trust Barometer that customers trust people like us, and that means employees, not executives or the marketing and PR department. Yes, marketing needs to have a hand in storytelling, but controlling the message and who tells it so closely can destroy value for the company rather than help increase it.
The best storytellers are closest to the front lines, whether in service, product, or sales. Unleashing these (trained) storytellers will increase the credibility and scale of your storytelling efforts, which (as in the case of IBM, who measured this over seven years) is likely to result in increased lifetime customer values. That’s a powerful return on investment.
5. Start Co-Creating
In the future, customers will have an increasingly important role in credible storytelling. Smart brands already do this; it’s time for others to step up. Some of the best content today is created or co-created by customers—another important way to engage and scale.
Look no further than GoPro for examples of fantastic consumer-generated content. Microsoft, too, has also done a great job of successful storytelling through the lens of customers. For both companies, co-creating has proven an engaging way to scale story and content in a way that is human and authentic.
6. Solve a Need
Great B2B storytelling sells emotional and personal value, not just rational value. Emotions matter. This is not a new concept, but it’s taken the B2B world a while to get on board. Some of the best storytelling today is still being done by B2C companies, but there is no reason B2B can’t adopt that narrative mentality.
Emotional narrative is critical to great storytelling, and B2B companies can learn from Hollywood screenwriting here. Google and CEB did a joint study a few years back that produced an interesting finding: personal value had twice the weight in a B2B purchase decision as rational economic value did. This means that all buyers are human and ask, “How does this make my life better?” Real storytelling must solve a human need for the buyer, a person.
7. Upgrade Your Endings
Storytelling must get rid of the lackluster endings. Economic benefit is a terrible ending for a story. Simply telling your audience that your product will help them save or make money or time—concentrating on a rational, economic benefit—is a shallow ending because, as mentioned earlier, it has no anchoring in a personal, emotional outcome. “So what?” I say. And so do a lot of your users.
Shallow is emotionally unsatisfying. What users really want to know is how their personal lives will change. They want hope that they will be better. What will money allow them to do to achieve community, fulfillment, credibility, recognition, and all the things that human beings want? Money is only a means to an end. Find those passions and go there.
It’s even okay to have a story ending that is open-ended, still evolving, and that leans towards hope. You can also have a business story that invites your audience to co-create an ending for themselves by sharing their stories. TOMS, for example, invites partners and customers to be a big part of fulfilling its larger mission because the company knows that its role is evolving, and that movements never happen without co-creators.
Your audience has human needs that have nothing to do with your product or service, and those needs go beyond rational, economic value. It’s your job to find what they are and tell stories that speak emotionally to those needs. Did your product help them reach personal goals? How? Go there! It’s never about your product, ever.
A great ending isn’t perfect. It just has to stay simple and honest.
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