If there’s a concept that is consistently used - and perhaps over-used - in communications, advocacy campaigns and advertising, it’s storytelling. Top agency creatives, Fortune 500 chief marketing officers and corporate communications leaders extoll the importance of storytelling in effective brand narratives.
Communications professionals are natural storytellers. But how do we define storytelling exactly? Is it enough to show the role and value of a product or service in the life of a consumer or stakeholder? Make the product the hero as the ‘Mad Men’ of the world once did? Or portray the consumer as the hero as is more typically done today? In my view, it’s not about heroism, characters or roles. Truly compelling stories share two things: Emotional relevance and an understanding of the nature of conflict.
How do we recognize a story that is authentic? All of us know the answer. We know a story is truthful when we recognize ourselves, our own experiences and emotions within a narrative. As human beings, we recognize an emotional truth in the stories we connect to on a gut level. And as storytellers, if we don’t feel a sense of understanding and emotional relevance in our work, our audience probably won’t either.
Audience members are our partners; they work with or against us to engage and complete the brand experience. Today we no longer tell tribal tales around a campfire where we can immediately gauge our audience’s reaction. As creative storytellers, we have to develop the intuition and foresight to understand our stakeholder’s personal, internal dialogue. This is the essence of what makes a story meaningful and memorable.
Life is full of conflict, and all good stories have some kind of force that prevents or delays the protagonist from obtaining the object of his or her desire. Even a sense of inertia can provide enough conflict to deter us from pursuing our goals. We all want to be healthy and fit, but it's hard to keep our resolutions to regularly hit the gym. Nike’s iconic “just do it” campaign recognized inertia as a central element of conflict in the lives of their customers.
We all want to craft powerful client stories, but it’s hard to know where to start. As a storyteller, I find that an effective place to begin is to search for the essence of central conflict. Where is the friction, the point of contention, or the uncomfortable sticking point for my client? Sometimes it’s right below the surface and something we tend to gloss over…a hard truth, a copy point too difficult to describe, an issue too complex to address. We often shy away and try to make the story about something slightly different to avoid the rough spots. When we do, we’ve probably missed the very thing that will make the story work.
Unless we ask the difficult questions that force us to unearth the essence of conflict and core messaging for our clients, we will never succeed in making their story relevant, or even interesting, for anyone else.
Understanding and empathy—that most human capacity to see ourselves in the lives of others—are what will enable us to create a compelling, enriching narrative. Life is a shared experience. We are indeed all in this together. And that's the real story.