October 23, 2018 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
Storytelling has become a buzzword in today’s world. Everyone is a storyteller, everyone uses storytelling in all of their content, and every single marketing strategy is delivered by great storytelling.
But when you take a look at the numbers, especially the engagement part, you can clearly see that storytelling isn’t being used effectively. And that’s expected because storytelling has many different elements and has a low bar of entry, but a high bar of expertise.
Still, there are certain elements of storytelling which are essential. If you internalize them, your storytelling skills will be effective. With that in mind, there are four easy to use storytelling elements which have extremely high leverage.
To start with “why” means to start with emotion — why do you do what you do? Nobody in today’s market does this better than Apple. They don’t just make computers. They believe in breaking the status quo through beautiful innovation and creativity, and they happen to show their beliefs by building great computers (and phones).
When you start with “why,” you connect on a deeper level with people and your message resonates stronger with them. You are no longer an objectified company; you are an entity which stands for something. Figuring out your “why” isn’t that hard, but aligning your message (and products) to always start with “why” is. But if you can take this approach, your storytelling will be much more effective.
Nobody resonates with perfection. If you always appear bigger than life, people will mistrust you. But if they know that you came from a similar place as they did, faced similar struggles that they did and managed to overcome them, they will bond with you.
You need to show people that you came from the same gutter as they did. You were once scared of a business meeting, public speech, or big company wanting to buy you out aggressively. You need to show context where you were “human” so that the others feel like you are just one of them.
Too much alienation and appearing perfect will just backfire. That’s why it would be really great if you could talk about your “clumsy moments” in public. Those are the moments where you failed, one way or another, but still managed to learn a lot.
Earning a million dollars is great, but sharing with people how you managed to lose one is even better. Being an inspirational speaker is awesome, but sharing with people that you stuttered for five years is even better. Having a 9,000-square-meter house makes you feel successful, but sharing how you lived in a small 50-square-meter condo makes you relatable. Context is important, and you shouldn’t forget about it.
There are hundreds of thousands of refugees running away from the conflict in Syria. Their homes have been destroyed, their lives have been turned upside down, and they have been forced to flee their homeland in search of a better, safer, and brighter future.
The thing is, we don’t care that much about this. We are really bad with big numbers, and we can’t connect with 100,000 people.
But the story of Orman, a 4-year-old boy who is sitting on the debris of what was once his house in Aleppo, covered from head to toe with dust and blood, having a lost-and-defeated look in his eyes, makes us care. The personalization of those 100,000 people in a single story of a single person, who’s made from real flesh and blood, makes us care.
When you want to touch your audience with a message, don’t focus on the many because people don’t care about that. Tell a story of a single person who benefited from what you do and people will care. And what is most important, they will act.
Last but not least, consider the art of showing instead of telling.
We are visual beings, and we perceive the world not in words, but in images. If you can paint an image for someone, your storytelling will be effective, and people will understand what you’re talking about.
A normal diet should contain no more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. A typical bag of popcorn in the movies has 37 grams of fat in it. Most of us read the last sentence, and even though we understood what it said, we didn’t quite get it.
How much is actually 37 grams of fat? Is that bad as “an extra cookie” or is more along the lines of “smoking two packs a day” bad? Numerical facts are simply dry, academic, and nobody cares about them.
Image via Flickr by wachovia_138
Art Silverman, who at the time worked for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), came up with a solution in 1992. He created a demonstration where he took the movies’ popcorn and put it on one side, clearly marking it with “37 grams of saturated fat.” On the other side of the table, he put the food which was equivalent to 37 grams of saturated fat: bacon-and-eggs for breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a juicy steak with all the trimmings on it as dinner — combined! The culprit for the saturated fat was coconut oil.
The story had a strong visual appeal, and it got picked up by several media outlets including CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. The idea stuck, and sales plunged. Soon after, the biggest theater chains such as United Artists, AMC, and Loews announced that they would stop using coconut oil in their popcorn.
This was the perfect example of showing instead of telling people how bad the saturated fat in the popcorn really is. Always paint a picture to people, because that will make them understand arbitrary concepts.
If you can use these four elements of storytelling, your content will be made effective by raising engagement. These elements are quite easy to use, but hard to master. As with anything, you need to practice to improve. So start today, and let us know the results!
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