Story is having a moment. It’s reached such buzzword status to the point where you’d think it was a newfangled, innovative, novel concept. But story is as old as is our species. And when companies use story to bond with their audience, they are tapping into the way that our brains are wired to connect.
Storytelling is what unites us as humans. It connects us to one another, and it distinguishes our species from other species. Historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens of how story itself contributes to our species’ competitive advantage. Our capacity to tell stories enabled us to modify behavior and evolve more successfully than our peers in the animal kingdom.
Through storytelling, we could collaborate, persuade, lead, and follow. Storytelling put the power into the collective, instead of into a single individual or family. We could band together to hunt big game more effectively. We could migrate in groups large enough to survive on new continents that previously knew no humans. Our instinct to tell and be moved by stories enabled us to thrive despite inferior physical strength and brain size.
Harari illustrates that storytelling resulted in previously unseen large-scale cooperation between strangers, and that cooperation included trade, group hunting and migration. “No animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions,” Harari writes. With stories, “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world.”
Story facilitated cooperation through trade, and this is what businesses still utilize today. Trade is possible because of cooperation. Cooperation is possible because of storytelling. This is the heart of brand storytelling. The promise of your business is the story of why a person should trade with you. It’s the reason you are allowed to ask them for this trade.
Stories persuade. We modern sapiens still motivate through storytelling. Stories succeed because they work in concert with the neural wiring of our audience. Facts and claims engage the prefrontal cortex, inviting debate and pushback. Stories circumvent that newer, slower, critical brain. They create an express lane to the brain stem, enabling you to persuade before their prefrontal cortex wakes to the conversation.
There may even be a chemical basis for the persuasive power of story. Author, professor, and TED Talk celebrity Dr. Paul Zak has discovered that storytelling encourages oxytocin release, which increases the likelihood that listeners will trust the storyteller. In other words: you tell me a story, I relate to the tension that the character in your story faces, which releases oxytocin in my brain, which makes me like and trust you, the storyteller, more for having told me a story. You are now in a good place to persuade me.
Persuasion is the fundamental challenge of marketing. And storytelling is a powerful tool as you approach this challenge. When you tell stories, your customer is more likely to trust you, and to feel they can safely believe your promise. So use storytelling to set these conditions, and you are more likely to succeed in persuading your target customer.
A major challenge of business is capturing the attention of an audience whose mental bandwidth is scarce and getting scarcer. This challenge mounts exponentially as more and more stimuli compete for that same mental bandwidth. The Internet and social media escalate this stimuli, and consequently deplete our attention bandwidth.
Herein lies the power of a deliberate brand strategy, which uses a central principle of story – tension – to capture and sustain the prized attention of our audience.
Stories relate a tension followed by a resolution. Loss followed by victory. Suffering followed by salvation. This pattern is a hallmark of the human condition. We continually encounter obstacles, overcome those obstacles, and then confront a new one. It is our hero's journey, our Odyssey.
Here are some famous story tensions and resolutions:
Your business resolves a tension for your customer. The story frames this tension as conflict that the customer (protagonist) is trying to resolve. This resolution is why your business deserves to exist. By communicating that tension and your uncommon way to resolve it, your business will attract customers who need that problem solved. For example:
As you build your business, remain focused on the tension you’re offering to resolve for your customers. While developing your offering, while delivering on your promise, and while messaging to customers, keep central in your mind the nature of the problem your customer is experiencing. This will set you up to resolve that tension in a way that satisfies and delights your customer.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.