Do you know the story of how teddy bears got their name? You may not know precisely, but it is a fair bet that you probably know that it is something to do with Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt died over 100 years ago—and his association with bears is not exactly his main ‘claim to fame’. So why do so many of us remember that his name was given to a small stuffed animal? It’s because it is part of a story.
The importance of stories
Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick is all about how to make ideas memorable. The brothers list six characteristics of ‘sticky ideas’, or ideas that stick around. They are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional—and almost always stories. Stories are, effectively, the ultimate in sticky ideas.
Human beings have been telling stories for millennia. Back in the days before books and paper, stories were the best way to make sure that important information was remembered. They were the archive of the group, and the storyteller the archivist. This means that we are hard-wired to remember stories.
Indeed, being able to remember stories could even be a genetic trait, because our survival may well have depended on it. In Darwinian evolution, if a particular trait gives an advantage, those with that trait are more likely to survive. They may therefore have children—and the trait will be handed on. If stories held important truths (for example, not leaving the group, not going near the river where the crocodiles lived), then remembering those stories would definitely increase your chances of survival.
Another reason why storytelling is important is that it actually creates an experience. When you read something factual, you process it with the logical part of your brain. However, when you read a story, you process it with the part of your brain that deals with experiences. In other words, reading a story is akin to actually experiencing it. It therefore makes a much stronger emotional connection with the audience, because they have essentially lived through it with the protagonist.
In an increasingly crowded digital world, storytelling is one of the best ways to ensure that your marketing messaging stands out.
Not just any old story
However, you cannot just add any old story to your marketing, and expect it to work a miracle. In 2021, marketers will need to sharpen up their storytelling skills, because you need to tell the right story, in the right way.
The ‘right’ story is one that resonates with your audience. In other words, it makes an emotional connection. This means that you need to understand your audience well, so that you know which story or idea will make that connection. You cannot just pluck a story out of the air, and hope for the best.
The ‘right way’ is also important. There are several elements to this. First, you need the right structure. We release oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’ in response to stories that have a beginning, middle and end. There is something about that structure that works for humans in a very deep way. Combining facts with stories also helps to make them more memorable, probably because it uses more of the brain.
The language that we use in our storytelling also matters. Using metaphors, for example, seems to help people to remember better, perhaps because it brings the story closer to personal experience. Of course it is important not to labour the metaphor—it illustrates the point, and should not be the point in itself—but these can be a useful way to create a picture in your audience’s mind.
Taking storytelling to the next level
Storytelling is therefore a vital way to engage with customers and make content more memorable. However, the skill can also be used to make your messages more memorable for other audiences. For example, have you thought about how you present your quarterly results to senior managers?
It is worth considering presenting your marketing performance as a story. Indeed, data visualisation generally should be thought of as ‘visual storytelling’. What is the message that you want to get across? How can you best convey it in simple terms? Moving from the idea of ‘dashboards’ to ‘storyboards’ can ensure that your messages become clearer, and easier to grasp and remember—and that is, after all, what you want to achieve.