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Want better engagement? Try telling a story

Posted by Simon Walker on 10/05/2018 12:18:03 PM

In Inbound Marketing, Content Marketing, Storytelling

Storytelling has been part of our culture since well before history was recorded. Imagine the early humans, sitting in a cave at night, fire flickering, regaling each other with tales of the day’s hunt.

james-bold-343821-unsplashOur earliest evidence of storytelling is in cave paintings - in Sulawesi, the Chauvet Caves in France, and at other paleolithic sites around the world.

These paintings are over 30,000 years old - predating written language by over 25,000 years.

Storytelling was the foundation of the human race - it’s a mechanism for the transfer of knowledge, enabling us to build on discoveries, pass information to other people, and improve our quality of life.

It’s little wonder that storytelling is such an integral part of our culture, and so effective for businesses that truly embrace it.

Why is storytelling so important for businesses?

We engage with stories like no other type of content on earth. Science tells us that when we’re engaged in a good story, we go from having 100 (I know!!) daydreams per hour to having none.

Why does this happen?

When we’re processing factual information, we only need one part of our brain - the language processing section - to decode the shapes into letters, words, and meaning. When we’re processing stories, we fire much more of our brain - we use our imagination to engage in the content.

This is extremely powerful in the attention economy, where we have to cut through much more content than we ever used to to find the information we actually want.

The old days of high frequency, shallow connection marketing engagements are ending - we need to think about how we engage people deeply with single, long duration engagements.

Stories are the perfect vehicle for this change. Long format, high quality content with characters and a narrative is ideal for generating more meaningful interaction than you currently do.

A well told story doesn’t just communicate facts and information, it creates an emotional connection to the characters and narrative. This is hugely important for businesses - it’s an opportunity to communicate your purpose and connect people with your why.

As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

The ability to pivot from explaining your business to telling your story is going to be a major factor for business success in the current media environment.

How to find stories to tell in your business

It can seem daunting when you’re sitting there with a blank sheet of paper, trying to figure out what stories you should tell about your business.

Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it seems.

If you’ve set out to do something you believe in, and have nailed down your purpose, you’ll find you don’t need to create the stories you tell. You just need to document what you’re already doing.

Document, don’t create. It’s the Gary Vaynerchuk mantra, and it applies here.

Every business action and interaction has a story behind it. When you start capturing them, you’ll start realising that you’re already creating great content daily.

Here’s an example:

I caught up with a great mate and client of ours, Nevil Chand from Evolve. Nev and I are pretty lined up philosophically, and we had a great chat down at the cafe in our building. Then we headed up to the office to record a podcast - but if we’d recorded our chat at the cafe, we’d have had double the great content.

This stuff happens every day, and once you start committing to documenting it, you have more great content than you can shake a stick at.

What’s more, it’s genuine conversation - and if something’s interesting enough to talk to someone for an hour about, it’s probably interesting enough to read or listen to (or even watch).

It also will be full of threads that tie back to the narrative of your business and your purpose. Think of it as an episode of a great TV show, rather than each piece being a short film.

What to do with stories once you’ve captured them

In today’s bite-size culture, it’s really tempting to try and break down the stories you capture into small parts. Short blogposts, little soundbites, and sub-60 second videos dominate the airwaves.

So, come back to the deep connection we talked about earlier. Short little blasts don’t create this - long format, in depth content does.

Some of the best long format content in the world comes from a pretty unlikely place - ESPN. For those of you unfamiliar with sports (the team at Proposition will attest to the fact that I am very familiar with sports), ESPN have become famous for producing short little news bites packaged up for the Twitterati.

Examples of their brilliant longform content include a harrowing look at the tragedy of the Chapecoense football team, a brilliant profile of mercurial NFL star Aaron Rodgers, and a thorough investigation of the wastage at Rio’s Olympic venues after the games.

The common thread in each of these stories is that they don’t focus on the facts, they focus on the people. This drives huge levels of engagement and keeps ESPN’s audience coming back to the site. ESPN have shown on a regular basis that they’re focused on making money (shutting down sites that aren’t performing, large scale redundancies etc), so the long form content must be working for them.

Why are we looking at ESPN’s content?

Because it provides a great guideline for how you can turn your day today content  you document into compelling stories that engage people.

It’s also a style that’s more comfortable to write, because you’re not trying to dress up technical content - you’re just letting a story flow. This style works well regardless of the content format - written copy, video or podcast.

Copywriters also love this style - there’s a bit more art in it than a traditional business blog.

Social proof

The other great thing about documenting stories is they often involve clients or key stakeholders in your business. This means that your audience isn’t just relying on you to build trust - they’re getting it from the characters in your story.

Social proof is hugely important in modern marketing. Consumers rely on online reviews to make decisions - Google and Facebook reviews are massive, as are testimonials and case studies on your website.

Clients or stakeholders that are willing to appear in your marketing are one of the most powerful forms of social proof. They are your advocates - they’re not just giving you a review, they’re actively engaging in helping you grow your business.

What to do next

Just start. Start documenting, start engaging your customers, start sharing the stories you discover.

You’ll feel that your initial results aren’t your best work, but it doesn’t matter. The only way to improve is to practice.

One of the hardest parts of the process is engaging your customers and stakeholders. Bringing yourself to ask them to tell their story is challenging - we’ve all experienced it. At the end of the day, it’s just like asking for a referral - it’s much easier than you expect, and actually relatively painless. People are also pretty happy to help!

So - telling stories delivers the kind of deep engagement your business needs to grow, and the best way to do it is to just get started.

What are you waiting for then?