New to storytelling? Dive in. (27-minute read)
It’s THE buzzword of the late 2010s.
Everyone and their goat is talking about it.
Google has 137 million results for “storytelling”.
Yep, we’re late to the party with this Ultimate Guide to Storytelling.
But if there’s one thing to learn from Apple, it’s this:
Being first isn’t important.
What matters is being the best.
So, in true From-Scratch-ness, this guide will sort pro advice from poppycock. Together, we’ll Kondo-fy storytelling so you can throw all the Storytelling-for-Business-BS out the window and get back to making a ruckus.
Why You’re Confused About “Telling Your Story”
We all know how to tell stories
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you’re a breathing human being, you know how to tell a story.
Our brains are built to run on stories the way your phone runs on Android or iOS.
It’s why we get sentimental about stuff. Hiut Denim put it beautifully:
Our love for our things – our pens, shoes, cameras, our books, our music, our jeans – usually has something to do with the stories that we attach to them. Sometimes the stories are our own, sometimes other people’s.
The places we go. The people we meet. The ideas we have. The companies we start. The tender moments. The excitement we feel. The failures. The successes. And, all the moments that fall in between these times.
So how come that so many people feel helpless when they want to tell stories at work?
Well, remember those 137 million Google search results? They’re partly to blame.
Spend 30 minutes reading blogs online, and you’ll harvest a host of conflicting information such as this…
When you want to use storytelling in your copywriting you need to pick a genre you’re going to steal from. You want to center your work around a certain mood, a specific emotional response. Are you writing a horror story? A romantic comedy? Or something else?
… versus this:
What people are craving more than anything in 2019 is something, maybe someone, to root for, not rail against. Make sure to show your audiences, through your storytelling, the world that you want to create and invite them to create it with you.
Faced with the decision between picking a genre and painting a positive vision of the future, many impact enterprises simply give up.
There is no single story to be told
What is more, the very notion of “telling your story” — in the singular — suggests that there is this ONE magical story that you need to tell. Just find that story and tell it well, and your business success is basically guaranteed.
But then you sit down at your desk and you start to take notes, and you discover…
There’s no single story coming out from behind a tree, waving at you, beckoning to be told.
There’s a multitude of stories in every business — and (almost) ALL of them are worth telling.
The danger of reading too many business books
Look at any self-respecting marketer’s bookshelf, and you’re sure to find a stack of storytelling books.
That’s probably always been the case, and it’s nothing new.
After all, many great copywriters, advertising creatives and marketing strategists studied literature, journalism or languages at uni. That comes with a hefty dose of storytelling theory and practice.
In recent years, however, we’ve been inundated with “storytelling-for-business” books. And what at first seemed like a genius idea, turned out to be a mix of solid theory and half-baked simplifications.
Not really that surprising either.
Writing a novel or screenplay can easily take years. Most businesses don’t want to invest that kind of time. (Even if the best business stories are often a result of a similarly lengthy ripening process. Just like a good cheese, a great story will ripen naturally if someone’s in charge of looking after it.)
So, in the search for easily repeatable recipes, some business books and blog posts have simply gone too far — and many readers start out enthusiastic until they get down to work on their story…
…and hit a prescriptive wall.
One of Sabine’s favourite love-hate example of this is Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand.
The book is a huge commercial success. More than that: it’s a huge commercial enterprise, with consulting, online platforms, events and webinars attached. And people like us can become certified consultants (because degrees in English Lit or Creative Writing are of course not enough).
If we sound bitter, that’s because it’s one of the most misunderstood books of the last decade.
Building a Story Brand is not a book about storytelling.
It’s a book about branding.
Donald Miller uses stories as metaphors that help businesses understand how branding works. Yet, we’ve spoken to countless people who (mis)used his book as a guideline for storytelling — and eventually gave up.
Whichever business book you choose, the authoritative tone used by many of those slim “guidelets” masks the fact that storytelling frameworks are only ever approximations. Those frameworks can serve as springboards for your imagination. They can help you bring order to the chaos of too many ideas and channel your message.
In storytelling, what counts isn’t whether you’ve followed a template to the letter.
What counts is that your story comes alive.
Keen to learn about storytelling — but put off by business books? We recommend these:
Aristotle — Poetics
John Yorke — Into The Woods: A 5-Act Journey Into Story
Hans-Dieter Gelfert — Was ist gute Literatur? Wie man gute Bücher von schlechten unterscheidet (currently only available in German)
Paul Watzlawick — The Invented Reality (German edition pictured above)
Eberhad Lämmert — Bauformen des Erzählens (currently only available in German)
Plus, Rain Bennett’s Storytelling Lab Podcast. Always worth a listen.
Storytelling is so much more than “sneaky sales copy”
Another myth that’s causing much trouble in the Impact Enterprise world is the belief that all stories must be used for marketing a product.
That false belief is endlessly repeated in well-meaning blogs and “influencer” posts:
If you want to advance your social enterprise, you’ll need to transform the stories that mass numbers of people around the planet have about the causes and issues that matter to your business. You’ll need to inspire them on a deeply emotional level to do what’s right, which should also look like buying your products and services.
(Source; emphasis ours.)
Why is this a problem?
Because if we’re honest, we don’t like stories with ulterior motives. They reek of propaganda and the tactics of used car salesmen. Listening to a story like that is almost like ‘sponsored content’ or clumsy product placement.
As the American poet Jane Hirshfield explains in The Effortless Effort of Creativity, American culture — and to a great extent, Western culture in general — thinks of creative writing as art, first and foremost:
Romantic temperament … equates spontaneity and truth. But the word ‘art’ is neighbor to artifice, and in human culture, as in the animal and vegetable worlds, desirability entails not only the impulse of the moment but also enchantment, exaggeration, rearrangement, and deception.
In this view, burdening a romantic expression of genius with the task of creating desire for a product seems like the ultimate form of deception.
But that’s not all.
We’ve seen the pressure to sell via story lead to writing blocks in some of the most creative people we know.
And a strong focus on selling a product or service pushes the far more important offer in the background: the idea that’s being sold.
Great stories sell ideas, not products or services.
And they do so very successfully.
Sharing stories is a source of great joy.
What is more, stories help us to become better humans.
They build deep connections, switch on our empathy and allow us to learn by impacting our brains and our hormones directly.
Here’s one of our favourite research stories to prove the point:
A team of scientists at Princeton, led by Uri Hasson, had a woman tell a story while in an MRI scanner. … They recorded her story on a computer and monitored her brain activity as she spoke. She did this twice, once in English and once in Russian; she was fluent in both languages. They then had a group of volunteers listen to the stories through headphones while they had their brains scanned. All of the volunteers spoke English, but none understood Russian. After the volunteers heard the story, Hasson asked them some questions to see how much of each story they understood.
When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.
Hasson also looked at listening comprehension. He found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker’s. When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.
When the woman spoke Russian, the speaker-listener brain coupling disappeared. … Her voice had inflection and emotion, but without comprehensible words to clue them into the action, the listeners could not make sense of her story. Except in the early auditory regions involved in processing sounds, their brains did not have corresponding activity.
It’s that authentic connection that makes storytelling so important, “especially in times of widespread crisis of trust in advertising” (link to PDF).
Done with skill and respect, telling stories can do wonders for your business and your cause. Whether you’re writing blog posts or producing ads, stories will engage people more and let them think more highly of your work.
Here are just 3 more research findings to show the power of stories in action:
Using a storytelling message format compared to an informational message format when a blogger reviews a sponsored product increases the blog readers’ viewing time of the sponsored blog post. This has important implications for advertising attention, since increased attention towards an advertisement can result in enhanced brand recall and purchase intentions
… especially if you’re a new brand or NGO.
Research conducted by Tara West in 2015 showed that 55% of people would consider buying from a brand in the future if they really loved a story:
Beata Zatwarnicka-Madura and Robert Nowacki summarised the research on the effectiveness of storytelling in advertising.
They found that in comparison to ads “providing facts or direct descriptions of product features and benefits”, stories “build a more positive perception of the quality of services and products”, “more positive attitudes” towards advertising and “higher purchase intentions of services… and higher purchase intentions of products”.
Other research they quote shows that “even a short brand story included on FMCG [Fast-Moving Consumer Goods] packaging had a positive impact on consumers’ affective, attitudinal, product value, and behavioral intention responses to the brand.”
So, we know for a fact that storytelling is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
But what stories should you tell?
And, is it ever OK to make yourself the protagonist?
Yes, You Should Absolutely Tell Your Founder’s Story
If you’ve read anything else about storytelling on the internet in recent years, you’re likely to have come across this:
“Customers don’t generally care about your story; they care about their own.”
(Donald Miller, Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, Kindle Location 257)
A bold statement.
Also, a statement often taken out of context.
Donald Miller is talking about branding here — and not about storytelling.
If you’re (figuratively) dying to tell the world how you started your company, just go ahead and do it.
Academic research has your back:
According to Znanewitz, Gilch (2016, p. 32), there are the following criteria for effective storytelling in marketing:
– The right story (true core)
– The story must represent the core of the organization. Best based on the history of the organization, or from experiences of its members or other stakeholders;
– Entertainment and excitement
-Aligned with up-to-date trends that are relevant to the target group;
– Different from the marketing stories of other organizations;
– Can be summarized in a few sentences;
– The story is simple, not too complex. Stringent plot, sparse details, letting the recipient be a co-creator;
– Gaps, open ends, incomplete background information, so as to let the recipient become a co-creator;
– Brand persona
– Use archetypes for quick and easy connection with the audience. An archetype has to fit the brand personality.
And there are lots of engaging, touching founding stories to prove the concept.
The story of Hiut Denim is one of the best examples of the above recipe that we’ve ever seen:
Our town is going to make jeans again
Cardigan is a small town of 4,000 good people. 400 of them used to make jeans. They made 35,000 pairs a week. For three decades.
Then one day the factory closed. It left town. But all that skill and knowhow remained. Without any way of showing the world what they could do.
That’s why we have started The Hiut Denim Company. To bring manufacturing back home. To use all that skill on our doorstep. And to breathe new life into our town.
As one of the Grand Masters said to me when I was interviewing: “This is what I know how to do. This is what I do best.” I just sat there thinking I have to make this work.
So yes, our town is going to make jeans again.
If you’re still worried about the Donald Miller quote above — that people don’t care about your story — remember this:
It doesn’t really matter whether “customers generally don’t care about your story”. That’s to be expected.
Your job is to make them care.
Remember the story of the Russian-English storyteller? Her (English-language) story made people care because it sparked empathy in her listeners.
And that’s the true power of your founder’s story, according to storytelling expert Marsha Shandur:
How do you make them care?
By telling the story of why YOU CARE. Whether it’s your business, passionate hobby or worthy cause, tell the story of it in a way that shows us why it’s important to you.
Tell us the emotions that you felt as part of this story. Were you excited? Angry? Weak with joy?
All of the above?
Show some vulnerability. This doesn’t have to mean pouring out your innermost turmoiled diary thoughts (you can totally save those for your therapist). Just give us enough to know that you’re human.
Tell us how you got there. Were you introduced by a mentor you loved? Was it something that saved you in a dark time? Did you stumble across it by accident, and discover that you LOVE it?
The reason this works is because of how our brains work.
You up for a quick bit of science?
When we experience empathy, our brains release oxytocin, the “bonding chemical” which leads to feelings of connection and trust. Further, scientists have discovered that, when we experience an emotionally charged event, our amygdala release dopamine, which helps with information processing and aids memory. So, if you want people to trust you more, and remember what you said, include emotions in your storytelling!
That’s the power of swimwear brand Deakin and Blue’s story.
It’s much longer than the Hiut Denim story — but also much more personal:
It all started when Rosie set out to buy a swimsuit for her weekly swim in 2016:
“I realised that swimwear offered either style or substance but almost never both. On one hand – beautiful, flimsy bikinis for lounging about and ordering cocktails; on the other – serious sportswear that offered little shape, support or style. But I wanted a swimsuit that could offer me both.”
An impatient woman, she decided to solve the problem herself. …
Rosie gathered a team of the best design experts out there, and together we listened as hundreds of you told us how you want to feel in a swimsuit. We looked at everything we didn’t like about the swimwear industry: from the airbrushed, sexualised models all the way down to the feel of the fabrics.
And so we decided to reinvent swimwear. To develop a set of pieces that are transformational – in how they feel, how they look and how they are made. Combining fabrics made from regenerated ocean waste, revolutionary production methods and a ground-breaking sizing system, to produce a set of garments showcased on a range of body shapes and sizes. You could say it’s a swimwear revolution.
Join our Revolution.
Over 500 women have already told us that our swimsuits have changed the way they feel about their bodies.
And we’re just getting started.
No wonder that they’ve been featured in media such as Forbes, The Sunday Times, Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan. All those editors and journalists had their brains flooded with oxytocin and dopamine!
Journalists, screenwriters and novelists have always known that an “honest story of someone going through the struggles of starting a business can be a great way to connect with your audience” (source).
The BBC’s take on the launch story of Bristol Cloth illustrates this beautifully. This story from Countryfile resonates with viewers because it shows how the team came up with the idea for their business, how they got started and what they’re planning for the future. From the music to the imagery and the interview, it feels thoroughly authentic. According to Change Creator, those are the precise ingredients that “help customers develop a sense of loyalty … that lasts for a long time”.
So, next time you’re wondering if you should tell your own story, we’d like to invite you to go for it.
Make it a great story.
Give us something to latch on to.
When the doubts creep in, remember this quote:
Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.
Don’t let her ethereal language fool you.
Applying advice from the greats of literature and entertainment can help your business soar.
The Hero’s Journey, Demystified: What It Is and What It’s For
Also known as the Transformation Story, the Hero’s Journey is a storytelling pattern popularised by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
While a fascinating book for sure, it was never intended as a guide to writing better stories.
Rather, it’s a work in comparative mythology, showing how many myths have a similar structure.
That’s why, as Jason McBride puts it, “you already know all about The Hero’s Journey. Even if you can’t articulate it, you have absorbed the steps it takes to tell a good story. The point of Joseph Campbell’s work is that this framework is in your DNA.”
Worth bearing in mind, too: there are plenty of exceptions to the Hero’s Journey framework. “It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor” (source).
In other words, stories and myths take different forms in different cultures — and work just as effectively.
Which is another reason why we shouldn’t blindly follow Campbell’s book as if it were a recipe.
Now that we know what it is, how does the Hero’s Journey benefit change makers like you?
On page 203 of The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, Gay Hendricks says that “business is ultimately a spiritual path”.
The most successful businesses have the deepest understanding of their place in the world.
As a psychologist and entrepreneur, Hendricks knows first-hand that a business is nothing without empathy.
This empathy is at the heart of the Story Models approach to building businesses and products. Popularised by Andrew Harrison in his engaging pro-bono workshops, this methodology uses stories to generate insights about customer needs, product benefit and gaps in the market — and to unify teams as they work towards a shared vision.
The Airbnb “Snow White” project illustrates the concept. Just like in Harrison’s method, this project was based on the central belief that “every business breakthrough starts with a story, from a customer’s pain point or … a story about a particularly excellent experience a customer once had”.
The steps are simple:
You start “by creating a list of the emotional moments” that comprise an experience with your company and build “the most important of those moments into stories”.
Casting your customer as the hero(ine), you’ll automatically find yourself following the Hero’s Journey pattern — and the pattern will allow you to work with the story productively. For example, you can tweak important scenes in the story to change the atmosphere. Or you can find ways of turning a dramatic mid-point into a happy ending.
Even if they’re fun and engaging, the stories aren’t meant to be used as promotional messages — instead, they’re engaging and fun decision-making tools. Here’s how Airbnb co-founder and chief of product Joe Gebbia describes it in Fast Company:
“As opposed to working out of a spreadsheet or a Google Doc, this is us creating characters and starting to understand the personality of these characters,” he says about the process…. “It’s just like watching a movie, honestly. You’re sitting in this room watching each of thees [sic] frames, talking about what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. We’re almost sometimes acting it out. And that is just such a different experience then [sic] working on a spreadsheet.”
The key thing to remember about Story Models is that they’re designed to “guide marketing, advertising, and customer service decisions … as well as keep everyone working on the same page.”
Use the Hero’s Journey to shape the User Experience (UX)
As Change Creator co-founder Adam G. Force explains and the Airbnb example illustrates, “storytelling is a deep understanding of human pain, human behavior, and then the most, most ideal format for communicating that”.
In a world that’s increasingly shaped by virtual experiences, we need to apply that kind of storytelling wisdom to the UX we create.
Because “if we’re going to claim to tell stories with our products, it’s time to wake up and pay sustained, deliberate attention to the language that guides users through them.”
This is what “narrative UX” is all about — a concept Sabine first discovered and applied in 2014, when she was still working in-house at LEGO Group:
Narrative UX … asks, Who is your product? What values do you want to communicate through language and style? If your product is a character, how does it speak and — importantly — how doesn’t it?
We especially love Jessica Collier’s metaphor of a good app being like a choose-your-own-adventure tale:
through a series of choices, the user brings to life a story that reflects their particular way of moving through the product. When we design products, it’s our responsibility to set up a framework that guides them through that story.
If you’re in charge of a website or you make a digital product, her absolutely brilliant Medium article is a must-read.
Use the Hero’s Journey to craft your marketing messages
Now we’re entering the Hero’s Journey most popular territory.
Because there’s already so much literature on the topic, we just want to briefly touch on 3 ways you can use the Hero’s Journey in your marketing:
1) For your Brand Story
Brand Stories are useful for any organisation, whether traditional for-profit, triple-bottom-line or not-for-profit. Because they’re so easy to understand and remember, they help the entire team integrate all your communications, both internally and externally.
For example, here’s how Dan Dufour describes their use in a booklet for the UK CharityComms network (link to PDF):
It’s an emotive narrative that clearly outlines the problem you seek to address, your charity’s role in addressing it and the role your supporter could have. Begin by asking why your story matters to your audiences. Ours have a fundraising case for support built into them.
If you sell any kind of product or service, simply substitute “asking for the sale” for “fundraising”.
2) To make testimonials relatable and real
Ever looked at reviews and testimonials and felt that they were a bit “meh”?
Those endorsements can become ultimate shruggable moments if there’s no Hero’s Journey to carry the outcomes. Customer Service platform Help Scout’s post on writing testimonials features a fab example to show how effective this can be:
‘During outages, we used to get bombarded with teammates asking “Is the site down?”. Today, the first thing the Incident Commander does is update our StatusPage. No more questions. Our in office internet connections have outages, too. After seeing our StatusPage, our IT Manager asked if he could have an account. Today, instead of the whole company running to his desk, he sends updates company wide with a few clicks. He literally bought me lunch.
— Douglas Jarquin, Technology Operations Manager, Zumba Fitness’
Relatable, right? Like you were reading a real story instead of stock photo gibberish. It invokes the anxiety of having all eyes on you if the network goes down. The idea of an outage that grinds the business to a halt is enough to make your hair stand on end.
The story also sets up the “before, after, bridge” that is so effective in persuasion — start with a vivid description of the pain, end with an enviable, headache-free outcome, and make it obvious how the tool was able to bridge the gap. Although the first example is shorter and may have more “snap,” testimonials are by nature geared towards an interested audience. Favor those that are engaging over those that are dispassionately succinct.
As a change maker, you sell ideas first and foremost — which means there’s always a transformative moment in every happy customer’s story.
Let your customers tell that story for you for ultimate feel-good sales.
3) In your advertising
Not all transformation stories have to be strictly true. If you’re creating an ad, it’s enough to make the story believable.
The following long-form ad has been called “the greatest sales letter of all time“, and it ran almost unchanged for nearly 30 years.
The Hero’s Journey is only gently touched upon in the first two paragraphs, and then a commentator takes over.
But even that tiny touch of storytelling can be very powerful: Martin Conroy’s famous ad is known as “Tale of Two Young Men”, and its success is invariably credited to the strong narrative hook at the beginning.
Use the Hero’s Journey as a Model for Change
Good stories have the power to inspire us to take action.
They fuel the fire of passion inside us and build our confidence that change is possible. Through identifying with the central character who’s making a change, we can vicariously experience and practise the change before we’re going through it in real life.
The climate catastrophe is a great example of how this works.
Summer Harrison’s research found that
climate change denial is not caused primarily by a lack of information or knowledge, but by a lack of identification with the cultural community of climate change believers.
For the environmental community, this belief gap suggests that attempts to educate the public through the use of scientific facts fails to acknowledge something fundamental about human understanding. Despite its importance, especially given the recent rise of so-called “alternative facts,” access to this knowledge does not account for the role of emotion and identity in the creation of our beliefs.
We urgently need more stories with a strong protagonist protecting the Earth — a new kind of superhero movie, for example.
Meanwhile, lots of work is being done to use stories in educating the next generation about the climate crisis. Daniel Otto’s article in the International Journal of Global Warming reports a 2-year digital storytelling project in which “interdisciplinary groups of students produced a digital story in the form of a 3–5 minutes video presenting the effects of climate change in their home countries.”
Our evaluation shows that digital storytelling as a teaching method did not only enhance our students’ knowledge, but also visualises how vastly different the effects of climate change are perceived.
The educational researcher Keri Facer agrees:
A central purpose of education in this period is to support students to imagine and make liveable futures on their own terms.
Supporting students to make, tell and listen to stories has a critical role to play in enabling students to identify and articulate desires, hopes, fears and dreams for the future and to engage with the rich complexities of the present.
What’s good enough for teenagers is good enough for older people too.
For innovators like you, working towards a better future, stories are a powerful vehicle to instil passion and belief in your customers.
Let’s tell stories that enable them to “engage with the rich complexities of the present”.
Use the Hero’s Journey as a Template to Make Story-Building Easier
Remember how we said that Joseph Campbell didn’t intend his book as a storytelling guide?
And still, it’s turned into a popular source of storytelling templates.
And that’s OK…
… as long as we bear in mind that the Hero’s Journey is just one way to tell a story…
… and as long as the complexity of Campbell’s 17-stage model doesn’t cause us writers’ block and anxiety.
If you’re after a template that’s simple enough to use and realistic enough to produce a great “story skeleton”, the French playwright Eugène Scribe is a better guide than Campbell.
Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) — image source
As John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers’ Academy, explains in his fascinating book, Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (pp.42f.):
Scribe’s prolific output (he ‘wrote’ over 400 works collected in no less than seventy-six volumes) is largely explained by his employment of a team of juniors who followed a formula he honed to perfection — much as an author like James Patterson does today. …
Though the topicality of his plays means his work has dated, Scribe is… arguably the first to articulate a template for mass production… his works were incredibly well structured, full of dashing rhetorical devices and — in their time — great fun. …
Without Scribe, then, there would have been no Ibsen or Shaw (at least not quite in the same form).
Not only is a 5-act template much easier to use than Campbell’s 17 stages.
The resulting structure also makes for more powerful marketing.
To find out what makes an ad successful, Keith A. Quesenberry and Michael K. Coolsen analysed 108 Super Bowl commercials over the course of 2 years: “Results demonstrated that average consumer ratings were higher for commercials that followed a five-act dramatic form.”
We’ve adapted Scribe’s 5-act template into a 5-step worksheet to help you plot your stories. You can download it here.
How to Tell Your Impact Story
Your impact story takes the figures and statistics from your impact report and turns them into stories.
To quote Jane Hirshfield once again, your story uses poetry to move consciousness toward empathy to transform the outer world “by a subjectively infused vision”.
That subjectiveness is the most powerful trait in good impact stories. They tell the story from the point of view of a person whose life you’ve impacted.
One brand doing this well is gym- and swimwear brand Ruby Moon.
The blog and individual items in their online shop feature the stories of women who’ve been positively impacted through Ruby Moon’s work — such as Jenny Vallejo in Ecuador:
“— This is Esperanza, she is my best cow”, says Jenny proudly while preparing to milk the animal. Esperanza produces more than 12 litres of milk per day which Jenny sells every day at 6 am to a milkman who then takes it to a dairy factory whose products are distributed to the whole country. When not milking the cows or working at her plantation, Jenny goes to her parents farm to help with the work there. Jenny’s parents live nearby and help her by looking after her children. At the end of each day, Jenny returns home to prepare dinner for the family.
“— We work hard every day but when we go back to our house and see our kids smiling we see the reason for our work,” Jenny shares. After supporting Jenny with a microloan, so she can grow her business and buy more cows, we named our GymToSwim® Tankini Top after her to honour her inspiring story. We believe in #WomenEmpoweringWomen this is why with every purchase made you enable a loan to support women like Jenny. Find your piece, make an impact!
Note how Jenny takes the lead in the story. We get to know her way of life. Naming an item after Jenny adds a nice touch, and the call to action is added elegantly at the end.
If we’d improve anything about the way Ruby Moon tell their impact story, it’s making it easier to find stories like the one about Jenny. The impact information on the Ruby Moon Our Story page is way less engaging, even if it’s more complete (the following is just a small extract):
So, what makes RubyMoon ‘ethical’?
100% of the net profits generated by RubyMoon are lent out as small loans, to empower women entrepreneurs in eleven nations. Why? Women are seen as the ‘change’ agents of the family and spend a larger amount of their income on improvements in the health, nutrition and education of the whole family but particularly children.
RubyMoon loans through lendwithcare.org and to date, RubyMoon has made over 200 loans. Case studies showcasing some of the women we have helped can be seen on our blog.
Using stories like Jenny’s to draw people into the About page could build stronger customer relationships and enhance the memorability of the whole brand — as you’ll see below.
BONUS: 6 Quick Tips for Telling a Memorable Story that Resonates
This is where we’d love you to aim sky-high.
(I first mistyped this as “shy-high” — and that’s definitely not what we’re aiming for!)
We’re aiming for the kind of memorability that storytelling expert Marsha Shandur describes like this:
What I mean is that I have all the feelings and impulses that I get with romantic crushes on people:
I can’t stop thinking about it.
I keep replaying in my head the times we had together (me, on the couch, it…playing on the computer).
I’m endlessly Googling it, and gazing lovingly at photos from it. Watching any videos I can get my hands on. Talking about it to anyone who’ll listen.
I’m even tweeting and writing Facebook posts about it – then refreshing over and over, hoping that someone has responded so I can talk about it some more.
Here’s the thing:
Templates like ours — or Scribe’s, or Campbell’s — will only get you so far.
They’ll form the skeleton of your story.
Or in the words of Jason McBride: four walls instead of a house.
Almost every month I get an inquiry from a potential client asking me if I know about The Hero’s Journey. … This question is a little bit like asking a builder if they know about walls. These clients usually aren’t ready to use actual storytelling. … The Hero’s Journey is a framework; it isn’t a story. You can’t just put up four walls and declare that you’ve built a house.
To build a home, you need to add interior design, people, doors and windows.
You need to make your story live and breathe.
In this final chapter of our ultimate guide, we’ll show you 6 ways to achieve that.
Don’t be a d*ck. Also, don’t tell stories that make you look like one.
First things first: be an ethical storyteller.
- Don’t blow your good deeds out of proportion (aka greenwashing or socialwashing).
- Don’t tell stories to win people over to the dark side (aka Breitbart and Trump tweets).
- But also: look after yourself and your own reputation.
That means 3 things:
- Be careful with showing others in a bad light.
- Get over your own anger, grief or bitterness before you tell your story. Your audience must always feel safe with you — and they’ll feel extremely uncomfortable if you break out in tears or punch someone in the face while telling the story.
- Don’t preach all over your story. Instead, follow Jody Aberdeen’s advice and “let the story naturally carry the message, not the other way around.”
Use action scenes.
Most of our clients find these a bit scary at first.
But once you’ve got the hang of how to write them, they’re a lot of fun.
And according to Science of People, they’re well worth the effort:
If we were to put you in an MRI machine and tell you facts (like this one!), the parts of your brain that would light up are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. They are the data processing regions of your brain.
But in a study at Princeton University, scientists found that, when you listen to a well-told story, the parts of your brain that respond are those that would if you were inside the story.
Incredibly, “if the story is being told live or in person, both the storyteller’s and the listeners’ brains start lighting up in sync with one another” (source), creating a captivating atmosphere.
It’s this activity in the brain that builds such a strong bond between the storyteller and the audience.
Why does this happen?
Mirror neurons responding to action scenes.
Here’s how mirror neurons were first discovered. The story is also a great explanation of how they work:
Early in the 1990s, researchers at the University of Parma in Italy were doing work with macaque monkeys. Quite by accident, when one of the researchers reached to grab his food, he noticed that the neurons in a nearby research monkey became active as if it was reaching for the food even though in reality it was sitting idly by. Startled by this finding, the researchers tested and found they could repeatedly make the monkey’s brain think it was taking action just by watching the researchers. This became the foundation for what are now called “mirror neurons”.
In order to write a great action scene that gets your audience’s mirror neurons firing, all you need to do is to pick a moment in your story and tell what’s happening in detail:
- Who’s saying what?
- Where are you? What can you see in that space?
- How do the people move?
- How does it feel?
You’ll end up with such a vivid scene that people will want to read, watch or listen to the whole thing.
A scene such as this:
Pudgy of form, shod in heavy work boots, Robertson trudges almost haltingly as he starts another workday.
But as he steps out into the cold, Robertson, 56, is steeled for an Olympic-sized commute. Getting to and from his factory job 23 miles away in Rochester Hills, he’ll take a bus partway there and partway home. And he’ll also walk an astounding 21 miles.
Five days a week. Monday through Friday.
It’s the life Robertson has led for the last decade, ever since his 1988 Honda Accord quit on him.
Keen to go on? Read the rest of Robertson’s story here.
Speak to all the senses
This one’s related to action scenes. It will make them even better.
And used right, its power can infuse every single sentence in your story:
When you’ve written the first draft of your story, go back and edit in details for every single sense:
It’s easy enough for most of us to bring in some sights and sounds.
Do pay attention to smells and movement in particular. Although their evocative powers have been proven in research, they’re often overlooked by storytellers for business.
Getting the listener’s brain to act as if they were inside your story is as simple as using some “word pictures”, idioms or metaphors such as “he kicked the habit” or “she grasped the idea”.
Or you could simply list some ingredients in a dish that’s cooked in your story, name the flowers blossoming in your protagonist’s garden or mention the bouquet of the shampoo you’re selling. Simply reading odour-related terms activates the same area of the brain as actually smelling them.
Make it emotional
Wrongly seen as unprofessional, exerting a strong emotional pull is the most underused tool in your marketing toolbox.
Especially B2B businesses struggle here — because we’ve all been led to (incorrectly) believe that business decisions are made rationally, and emotion should be kept at bay.
To create a strong emotional pull, all you need to do is this:
Use the beginning of your story to show what’s at stake.
That can totally be done in a professional way.
If the stakes are high, your audience will get hooked straightaway — which will increase their dopamine levels and give them an emotional reward that makes them feel energized and curious.
In addition, using a story to describe a threat can boost your cortisol levels, which grabs your attention and drives you to remove the pain or threat, real or perceived, ASAP. And even just reading about goals and challenges can spike serotonin levels, which triggers the pursuit of goals and loss avoidance.
In other words, this kind of suspense is fantastic for persuasion and conversion:
Well-told stories wrap us up in the details. They slip in under our radar and persuade us when we least expect it. We’re more likely to listen to a message when it is relayed through a story. According to psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of The Invisible Gorilla, stories can be even more memorable than facts and statistics: “Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples, not by compiling data from many people across a wide range of situations.”
While most of us have a habit of blocking out marketing gimmicks, there is a certain level of suspense we feel when reading a good story, and we usually answer the call to follow it to the end because we want to know, “What happens next?”
No spoiler alerts
Nothing kills your story faster than not sticking to the chronological order in which things happened.
(Unless you can time-travel in your story without giving anything away!)
Whatever you do, keep up the suspense, or you’ll lose the attention of your audience.
In the words of Marsha Shandur: “Don’t give us details that you yourself didn’t know, until the part of your story where you discovered them. By telling us what’s going to happen later, you lose the tension in your story.”
Once you’ve got your first draft, edit to refine your language
(Don’t do this too soon, or you’ll get stuck.)
Simply work your way through this lil’ checklist to make sure your words sparkle:
- Are you speaking concretely or in the abstract? According to Chip & Dan Heath’s fabulous book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, concrete language helps your audience to understand what you’re saying and remember it. Andrea Badgley has written a beautiful article on how to write concretely — inspired by Stephen King, no less.
- Are you adequately relating your own story to the reality of your audience, or are you a little self-absorbed? Jennifer Kriz, Media Relations Expert at the University of San Francisco, says:
nonprofits often fall into the same chasm that for-profit companies fall into, which is they focus their story on what they have — what their own story is — instead of relating their story to a broader audience. They really just focus too much on what their individual expertise is and what they focus on as an organization and not on what the broader implications are.
- Could you use some literary techniques to make your story more engaging — and therefore more persuasive? Psychologist Jeremy Dean, PhD recommends
irony or metaphor to make the banal and everyday seem new and fresh. It’s about shaking the reader out of the mundane.
Imagery is important as it helps the story come alive in the reader’s mind.
Suspense keeps us reading for the oldest of reasons: to find out what happens next.
Modelling: if you want someone to change a behaviour, then you can model it. The character in the story has to go through the transformation that you want the reader to go through.
- Let your story sit for a few days before publishing it. Read it out loud. Take a deep breath and let it fly.
So, How Can You Become a Master Storyteller for Your Impact Enterprise?
As with most things in life, practice makes perfect.
The most enjoyable way to practise is to simply engage with as many stories as possible.
We love this description:
“You need to learn the craft of storytelling through a combination of osmosis and application.”
- Read long-form articles in good news outlets.
- Read novels and short stories.
- Watch the best TV drama you can find.
- Watch films. Whether on Netflix, DVD or at the cinema.
- Go to the theatre or read a play.
And if you want to get started right away — download our free 5-step StoryBuilder Worksheet here.