The importance of storytelling for businesses

In every time period, and in every culture throughout history, storytelling has been ever-present. In fact, storytelling has been the basis of almost everything in our society – it has well and truly earned its place as the most important tradition humans possess. Now, storytelling in business has emerged as the key to succeeding in a crowded marketplace.

At their simplest, stories are recognisable patterns, within which we find meaning. They teach us to love, to forgive, to strive, to improve. They’re the way that we make sense of the world, and share that understanding with others. The way we live, dream, interact, and communicate all derives from stories and, in this way, storytelling has connected us through generations.

Every story contains a lesson to instruct the audience. When done well, a story delivers a message, puts us in a compelling characters’ shoes and evokes powerful emotions. It’s a wonder, really, that it’s taken so many people so long to realise the potential of storytelling in their businesses.

At Intelligent Ink, we’ve long talked about why stories are important. In fact, since our inception, we’ve been all about the way that storytelling allows businesses and brands to connect with customers and prospects on a more intimate level. We believe in the ability of stories to do this better than any other marketing methods. Since 2011 we’ve been helping more and more of our clients to tell compelling stories, and fundamentally change the way that they connect with their market – which is why we’ve put together our ultimate guide to storytelling for business.

Facts, figures, and even extremely well-worded lists of features can tell a prospective customer a fair bit about your offering, but these things aren’t necessarily going to win them over. Thinking is good, but ultimately you need to make them feel – and this is where storytelling comes in.

Before we further unlock the power of stories and how you can bring this to life for your own brand, let’s first delve a little bit deeper into the research that we believe adds to the case of why storytelling is so important.


What science says about stories

Copy of Telling story

According to the science, stories literally engage more of our brain than when we are listening to (or reading) facts and figures. You see, when you’re normally learning information, only one part of the brain gets activated. If you’re reading it, the visual cortex of your brain is working. If you’re listening to the same information, your auditory cortex is activated.

However, consider this scenario… Say I share with you a story about the community which desperately needs my particular product or service. I set the scene of my story by describing the way the forest where this community lives smells, the aromas I can detect coming from their homes when I visit; now the olfactory sensory areas of your brain are active. Maybe I describe the bumpy road we’ve driven along to get to these people (hello, motor cortex!) or the fear and worry of these people and the desolate outcome they’ll face if they don’t find a solution; now the empathy areas of your brain have come online.

You can see where I’m going with this… The impact of all this brain activity is that because you are having a richer brain event when I tell you a story, you enjoy the experience more, understand what I’m telling you more deeply, and retain the information that I’m sharing with you for longer. Our awesome partners at ROCKETSHP took a look at storyselling recently and found that the research suggests that you’re 22 times more likely to remember facts as part of a story, or to retain 65-70% of what a story contains, compared to only 5-10% of the information that’s in a list of stats! Either way, our exchange is going to have a much greater impact if I tell you a story.

There’s more to this too. In the 1990s, Italian neurophysiologist, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues’ study of monkeys led to greater understanding of the way our brains react to stories. The findings were complicated, but the main point (that was confirmed assessing humans not primates!) was that when a person tells you an engaging story, the same part of your brain lights up as that of the person telling the story. In other words, our brain makes very little distinction between what we experience and what we hear about others’ experiences.

So we know our brains are more active with stories, but let’s consider the chemicals at play also. You’re watching or reading something that is set up as a narrative. The story starts by creating a character – someone to root for – and developing tension as you see their trials and tribulations unfold. You experience their thoughts, feelings, challenges, failures, and successes and, in doing so, this human-driven story causes oxytocin synthesis.

It sounds technical, but basically what I’m saying here is that the emotional hook or trigger that got us interested in the first place has also produced high levels of oxytocin in our brain. Responsible for that ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling that you get when you connect with someone, oxytocin is the neurochemical that fosters trust, generosity, compassion, empathy, and openness (and you can surely see how that sets the stage for a good place to share your brand messages!)

With your attention grabbed, you go along on the journey with these characters that you’ve connected with until they reach a resolution – the conclusion of the story. On a chemical level, being hooked in and becoming keen for a positive outcome evokes our stress hormone, cortisol. Then, when the happy ending comes, our limbic system – the brain’s reward centre – releases a seductive surge of dopamine, which lets us know that a resolution has been reached and makes us feel much better.

Not coincidentally, dopamine is the pleasurable ‘reward-driven’ substance in our brains that signals a success. It’s also the happy little brain chemical that makes us feel infatuation and this is where its presence is important for brands. If you want to win people over, you need to get them to release dopamine in your presence. And how can you do that? With the resolution of a happy story.

This image, courtesy of Rand Fishkin at the 2018 Inbound Conference, illustrates this journey beautifully…

The research as it applies to promoting your brand

It might seem simplistic to outline the elements of a story in this way – but the ingredients work! American researchers, based out of John Hopkins University, conducted a two year analysis of Super Bowl commercials in order to determine the specific strategies that most successfully sell products. While cute animals or sexy celebs may be one way to go, the study found that plot development – the structure of the content, regardless of the content itself – was the biggest predictor of success.

“People are attracted to stories because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people,” Keith Quesenberry, one of the researchers, explains. This is powerful stuff for businesses!

Another study found that customers are more likely to buy from a company after seeing a story-based ad that a ‘sales-y’ ad. When asked outright, about what they consciously thought, 92% of consumers even said that they prefer brands to make ads that tell a story.

So how do you do that? And why should you bother – or, in other words, how is the science actually going to affect your bottom line?


Telling story

It’s all about connection

People care about organisations and brands that they feel connected to; it’s that simple. But how do you create connection? Think about how you make a friend… You sit down with someone and you share things about yourself. You enable them to get a feel for what you’re about – what drives you, what you like and dislike, what you value – the stuff that makes you uniquely ‘you’. We do that through telling them stories. The narratives we tell each other provide insights and allow us to connect. From there, a relationship is formed. And that relationship is based on a genuine connection.

It might seem somewhat quaint nowadays in our age of artificial connectivity where true connections are harder to come by. However, that’s what makes this stuff all the more powerful. It is real and authentic connections that people are looking for – things that resonate with the picture that we have of ourselves. And it’s real and authentic storytelling that is needed to cut through the ‘noise’ and the overwhelming excess that we have as consumers.

Stories connect people with other people, businesses, brands, products, and their dreams – and businesses simply can’t succeed without this connection.

Storytelling adds a human element to your content and, in this way, give us something or someone to relate to. Think about our widespread adoption of (and absorption with, or addiction to) social media – we’re building other people’s stories from the snippets they share of their lives. Debates aside about whether or not we’re now taking this too far, it’s human nature for us to care what our peers are doing. We look to them to see how they cope in similar situations, or to assess what they’re capable of achieving; we use this to influence our own stories.

An effective customer or client success story for your business functions in the same way. It highlights how other people or businesses responded to a similar challenge, and how they were able to triumph over it (with your help, of course!) When you’re presenting an idea, it’s all about the story of the problem you’re solving. When you develop a product, you need to not only solve a problem but also tell a story that creates a world where this product exists. Social media has made us more comfortable about the idea of conversing with businesses and brands, and our brains are constantly craving the next interesting or exciting tale, so there is a real opportunity to craft and share compelling stories which show how you help people solve a problem.


Stories are a great way to get people to do something

There’s no shortage of stories  – one figure I saw asserted that consumers today take in an estimated 100,500 words of digital content each day! However, in the deluge of content, it’s the compelling stuff that really makes us feel something that is going to actually make us do something. When we feel, we act.

Look at the Repeal the Eighth – a campaign which recently saw the Republic of Ireland repeal a clause in their law which outlawed abortion. That only happened because women started telling their personal stories and allowed the public to understand the emotional and physical impact of abortions being banned. This example may have applied to social media – and to a national community – but it can also work for business.

I think Harrison Monarth, author of The Confident Speaker, put it best when he said: “A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”

Stories make ideas stick. Stats and facts are all well and good but, as we saw in the previous research, it’s stories that will help us retain those points long after the data has faded from our memory. Further to that though, stories have the ability to inspire and motivate.

Consider this prime example from Contently, which, though some years ago, still stands to illustrate the powerful potential of stories.

In 2012, a pale woman with crazy eyebrows and a keytar strapped to her back made a video of herself, wearing a kimono and holding up hand-Sharpied signs on a street in Melbourne. One by one, the signs flipped, explaining that the woman had spent the last 4 years writing songs. She was a musician, and had parted ways with her record label, which had said the cost of her next album would be a whopping $500,000. She and her band mates were very happy to no longer be with the label, and had worked hard to create some great new music and art. But they couldn’t finish producing the record on their own. She needed people’s help to get it off the ground and to make what was now her business — independent music — work. “This is the future of music,” one of her signs read. Another, “I love you.”

She then posted the video on Kickstarter. In 30 days, it raised $1.2million. 24,883 people pre-ordered the album, bought artwork, or simply donated money. The album and tour became a huge success, and the artist turned her music into a real, profitable business. The woman in the kimono – if you haven’t heard this story already – was Amanda Palmer, who changed the game for independent musicians with that campaign. She did it, not by simply asking for money, but by telling her story.  

And she did it by making people feel something. As much as we think we are rational and logical beings – we do use logic to justify our actions to ourselves and others after the fact – several studies have concluded that up to 90% of the decisions we make are based on emotion. And this goes for purchasing decisions as well.

Some schools of thought suggest that we’re conditioned to seek out stories when we need to make a decision. Remember how we said that stories help people make sense of their world? Stories – and the feelings they evoke – are how we identify truths, find ourselves and orient our place in communities. It’s been this way since the beginning of time (we’re fairly certain!) and it’s become the way that we’re able to find value – which brings us to some of our best tips for how you can craft compelling stories for your business.


So how do you tell a great story?  

In our opinion, the best stories surprise and delight. They’re real and authentic and honest. They provide a true insight into a brand, a business, or a person – showing others what sets them apart or makes them special and different. They have compelling characters. They make us feel something and they make us remember – sticking in our minds in a way that other bits of information don’t. So, to do this…


  • Include the right stuff and not too much stuff

The best stories keep it simple – they follow the stages that we’ve already included in the diagram above – and they focus around one single important idea, theme, or message. When you have a good and real story to tell, and you follow this formula, a story gains its own natural momentum.

As a business, whether you provide a product or service, you are the solution that comes in at the climax. This resolution creates a new, better normal as a result of engaging with your service or buying your product, so keep that in mind as the end-goal or outcome you’re working towards.


  • Answer the right questions

We know that the best stories make us think and feel – and ultimately, do something – but they also serve a purpose of transferring some sort of knowledge, opinion, or information. It’s our view that stories exist to answer the all-important question: ‘Why should I care?’

Customers are bombarded by more advertisements every day than we could ever reliably count, so it’s understandable that we’re discerning about what we give real estate in our brain to, and sceptical as to why we should care about what a brand or business says.

The challenge is to use storytelling to answer this most basic question – whether it be for your customers or prospective customers, your employees, or even your investors. Why should they care? Remember how I said that people care about people…? One of the key mistakes that businesses make with their storytelling is they focus on the idea, or the product, or the brand itself, when the focus should always be on people.


  • Keep your customers firmly in mind

If you’ve been paying attention, the point above has surely hinted at this already – but your story can’t just be solely about you. Make sure the stories that you tell are about your customers too. You need to be telling a story that shows how customers feel when they use your company. Show them how you fit into their lives, how they are impacted by purchasing or working with you. There are a number of ways that you can do this – and customer success stories are just one option – but your aim is to make them want what your current customers are getting.

In keeping your customers in mind, make sure that the content you produce and the stories that you tell are providing value to them. I’ve already made reference to how much information they have to choose between consuming… Don’t insult their intelligence or squander their attention by giving them more of the same. You know your market’s challenges, given you’ve created a product or service to solve them, so give them value through your stories too – with tips or ideas, things they didn’t know, or at the very least a story which will entertain them.


Make your story their story

Remember that it’s OK to ask your audience for what you want them to do as a result of engaging with your content. Too often people fear that a call to action means that you’ve stopped telling your story and are now being sales-y, but people want to know what to do next when they’ve connected with your ideas.

I said before about the best stories making people do something… In telling them the best way (or ways) to do that, you are giving them the opportunity to create their own similar story, or become part of yours. So include your call to action and invite them in.

You can also bring your audience into your stories by helping your customers or prospects see themselves in a particular way. We’re all using the stories around us to help us make sense of ourselves and where we fit in the world. So, use your stories to get across what you already know about this – that your product or service will make your prospective customers’ lives better somehow. I figure that’s hopefully why you created it, so tell them that and show them how through storytelling.


  • Be transparent, and be authentic

A great way to be authentic is to share the ‘why’ of your business. Instead of just a dry retelling of your history, take a look at where your passion has come from, how the idea or company was born, as well as what drives or motivates you now, and what your hopes are for the future too. It’s allowed to be aspirational! The key thing to remember when you’re sharing your why? Keep it real.

Stories may largely be associated with fiction, and distinguished from a list of facts, but this isn’t an excuse for embellishments. Be real and truthful in your stories. Sure, you can paint your version of utopia, but don’t lie or deceive people. Savvy consumers can smell a load of BS a mile off, and it’s just not worth undermining all the wonderful work you’re doing with a story that just doesn’t add up. People want to connect with the truth.


  • Have a personality

That said, while you’re getting real – be prepared to really be you. If you’re the person behind your business or brand, let that shine through. And if you’re not, adopt the business’s brand voice and have at it. Use humour and don’t be afraid to have a little sparkle. Be tongue-in-cheek or edgy if that suits. It’s all part of making you stand out as different and it just further supports the all-important authenticity.


Storytelling is here to stay

We’ve seen that storytelling isn’t new. Around since the dawn of time, and holding its own now in a world of near instantaneous access to information overload, storytelling has proven both its resilience and necessity. It (rightly!) remains a powerful and deeply entrenched currency in our society.

Think of the mind-blowing changes we’ve seen in the last few decades, let alone centuries; if storytelling still exists in fairly close to its original form, I would wager that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, the platforms and the channels that we use to tell and share our stories will continue to change, but the stories themselves and their vital importance won’t.

So, if you haven’t already, invest in developing strong stories for your business – and do the work to tailor them across your different channels and towards your various audiences.  The wise Seth Godin puts it well when he says, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories that you tell.”

And we would tend to believe with novelist Philip Pullman too when he says: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

So, go forth – communicate and connect. Share your why and move people with your stories. And if you need help telling those stories, get in touch.

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