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Ewan Jamieson

Telling Tales

The power of storytelling is the key to engagement. Whether it’s relating consumer stories back to a brand, telling tall stories to your friends down the pub, relaying something incredible you read in the paper to your spouse or using Roald Dahl’s fantastical tales to amaze a ‘chiddler’, a strong narrative littered with relatable touch-points is what will resonate with listeners.

If this sounds like an ancient (see also ‘tried and tested’) concept then that’s because it is. Storytelling, tale appreciation and fiction-based learning are entwined in the double helixes of our DNA. We consume and repeat stories avidly throughout our lives and have done since the start of time. From cave paintings and primal grunts through to gossipmongers and pamphleteers, via religious texts which shaped how people lived their lives and the first product advertisements, story has played a significant cultural role in evolution. Until now however, it’s adaption by professional cultures has been slower than the plot of a Dostoyevsky tome.

For a brand or company to appeal to consumers or event-goers its content must tell a coherent story; one that draws us in, opens our minds and enriches our experiences. Psychological studies have shown information gleaned through narrative is easier to relate to, which means we absorb it deeper and longer. There are many ways to build such engagement through storytelling but if it is to be an effective method for businesses to engage their customers, staff or event attendees, then the stories must be strategically linked to their brand values and experiences, and be true and unembellished.

To achieve deep engagement, brands must wrap their products and services in an interesting narrative, helping consumers to accept them organically into their lives and share their story as if it were their own. The key is to attract, involve and sustain your audience, and then let your listeners choose how they pass the story on. Stories need to be easily shareable so that they can reach a wider audience and grow. Whereas once a story’s reach was extended by daubing it in blood on a cave wall or painstakingly laying it out on a movable type printing press, today it can be spread across a plethora of social media platforms and disseminated around the globe in minutes by the story’s endorsers; those who it has engaged or intrigued.

Storytelling is also about integration. We are all storytellers at heart. In the digital age storytelling is finding new legs in social media and curation platforms and brands are striving to add new chapters to their stories through user-generated or crowd-sourced content. By subtly blending together the differing viewpoints of their brand’s stakeholders (customers, staff, benefactors) a richer, more complex tapestry is woven. Lest we forget, hearing a message from a trusted friend or family member is always perceived as more credible than disseminating a corporate advertisement, and such peer-to-peer recommendations have always formed a key part of any purchase decision process.

Good storytelling needs characterisation to make you care about the outcome and a good plot to keep you surprised and entertained along the way. Simple story structures rarely deviate from the traditional path; a set-up, a series of points to contemplate, a climax and then a resolution. Complex plot structures can enrich the experience for the few who are adept enough to follow, but for most the message, and interest, will be lost. The key therefore at first is simplicity, building up to more intricate features as the authors and audiences meet at the same wavelength or point of shared understanding..

The structure of a story, its characters and plot is one thing, but above all a story needs a storyteller because execution is critical. In the context of events, leaders and speakers can use storytelling to negate information overload and to inspire emotion in particularly dry session. Stories help with the adoption of new mind-sets and strategies; facts and data fade from memory over time, but an engaging story – and an impassioned storyteller – is difficult to forget.

If a brand’s story has an interesting start, absorbing characters, is something that everyone can participate in and contribute to and is delivered clearly with shared semiotics and little interference, then people will listen. Better still, they will share the story with others because an even greater pleasure than being told a good tale is telling it yourself.