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How to tell a compelling story

by Jen Travis

A good story can make or break your brand.

Sure, you can let a story happen to you, like the story that happened when a family was kicked off a Delta flight because they wouldn’t give up a seat that they’d paid for. Or, you can create a story, like when Southwest Airlines turned a plane around for a passenger who’d just learned her son was in a coma. Both stories are compelling because they make you feel something.

Think of great movies or TV shows you’ve seen. These stories were designed to hit a nerve. They find the relatable element of any situation, the thing that connects you with the characters. Even though they’re fictional, the movies and shows that stick with you have an emotional resonance that’s anything but fake.

Now take a brand like Airbnb. Rather than telling the stories themselves, they let customers tell their own stories about how they experienced a place like a local rather than a tourist. These stories enhance the Airbnb brand in a way that’s both memorable and authentic.

How companies are using storytelling

Storytelling can be used for both internal and external brand building. We’ve seen a lot of companies use storytelling to solve some common business problems, including:

  • Needing to re-engage their employees around their vision and mission
  • IT and HR teams needing to build awareness of the value they bring to the organization and bolster adoption of new technology and processes
  • Getting buy-in from executive stakeholders for innovative initiatives
  • Being a challenger brand in a new market
  • Explaining how and why they’re broadening the scope of their mission
  • Hitting a major company milestone and wanting to refresh their brand in the market

What makes a great story?

At Slalom, we believe in storytelling because we’ve seen it connect companies to their employees and customers. To do that, stories need these key ingredients:

  1. Relatability
    Rather than making abstract points about products or services, great stories are about things the listener might actually experience. They connect with human emotions and situations that everyone can relate to, putting your brand at the center of those situations. 
  2. Emotion
    Tickling the happy or sad chemicals in our brain is key to making your story memorable. According to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, we're 22 times more likely to remember a fact if it's presented in a story. 
  3. Authenticity
    People can sniff out weak attempts at being “real,” and are in fact predisposed to think brands are trying to sell something. To connect with an audience, your stories need to feel true to who you really are.

That last point is why good storytelling starts with a clear definition of your brand—the thing that makes you more valuable than your competitors. Your brand value is found at the intersection of three things: What you do well, what your customers want, and what you can own.

Get personal

Once you know this, you can bring your brand value to life through storytelling, making it emotionally resonant and authentic. 

  1. What’s going to get their attention?
    Attention spans are more fragmented than ever. You don’t have much time to pull people in before they’re off to the next micro-dose of content. So consider opening with something unexpected. Or set up the problem you’re going to solve. What is the relevant challenge your audience faces? How does it make them feel? Tap into that emotion and you’ll draw them in to hear the rest of the story.
  2. What’s going to connect with them?
    We don’t connect with a product. We connect with how it makes us feel. But we need to see a human outcome to feel it. Human stories are best because they’re relatable and make people feel. And, when people feel, they act. 
  3. What’s going to transform their thinking?
    Great stories are usually about transformation. They take a problem and solve it, or identify a challenge and show how it was overcome. Make sure your stories paint a picture of the change your brand enables.

When you have these elements, it’s time to create the story arc.

Storytelling ingredients

  1. The big idea
    You want your audience to take away two things: your point of view and what’s at stake for them. Your point of view stems from your brand value, but you need to show why it matters to them. What are the missed opportunities they can expect from doing nothing? Example: The U.S. should lead in space achievement because this is the key to the Earth’s future.
  2. The supporting points
    Then think about all the reasons they should believe your big idea. The ones that will matter most to them. Not product features themselves, but how those product features will change their lives. Two to three key points that make them feel. Example: Our space program has advanced tenfold over the past 30 years, enabling more discovery and innovation. We’re looking beyond being first in space discoveries to finding solutions to climate change.
  3. The happy ending
    This is the solution to the problem. How your Big Idea will change the world—or at least your audience’s lives. Connect this to an emotion and you’ve got story gold. Make your audiences feel enough to want to take action. Example: By leading in space achievement, the U.S. will drive the innovation that will make our planet healthier for our children.

Moral of the story?

A compelling story can humanize your brand and create a connection with your audience—customers and employees alike. It can open the door to new audiences and differentiate your company in competitive markets. It can cut through the clutter and drive deeper engagement. But it has to start with an understanding of your brand and what you want your audiences to feel.

That feeling, connected to your company's story, becomes your brand’s north star. It’s the feeling you become known for and what you want people to say about you.

If you want to take the next step and learn how to create and tell more impactful stories, we can help.

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