How stories paid for terrifying trousers and patchouli candles

A patchouli plant, © Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock

A patchouli plant, © Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock

Is storytelling just the latest communications fad?

Imagine a business buzzword bingo scratchcard from twenty years ago. The phrases “paradigm shift,” “blue sky thinking” and “think outside the box” would all have featured. These clichés are no longer widely used because they were essentially meaningless waffle.

Self-appointed thought leaders make their money from the next big concept. Is the tide of interest in applying the principles of “storytelling” to communication the latest fad, here today and set to disappear next year?

And is it all a waste of effort anyway for businesses, social enterprises and charities in this era of rapid-responses, instant decision making and increasing demands on our attention span?

Short answer: no. You might expect me to say that, though.

Slightly longer answer: pour yourself a hot cup of fresh coffee, take a refreshing sip and read on. It’ll be ninety seconds well spent (you’ll enjoy the coffee if nothing else!)

My first business communication “story” – at the age of 17 – ended up helping to pay my way through University. I’d setup a part time business – and burned my entire advertising budget on an ad that got no response.

Given the opportunity to run one free of charge follow-up ad by the revenue-hungry local newspaper, I changed the copy – and came up with a 4-word (true) story.

The new ad worked: the phone rang off the hook, my business developed and provided much-needed income for baked beans, patchouli candles, ridiculous clothing and other essentials of student life.

My psychology degree was punctuated by acting in nine university productions – and writing and performing in a game show to introduce the concept of fair trade coffee to schools. What could have been a dry, worthy and dull assembly, boring the pants off pupils, ended up engaging kids; it was a lot of fun too.

Nowadays, many of my and Keep Your Fork’s clients have generated media coverage, increased membership or supporter numbers, attracted more people to their events or raised funds by communicating effectively and with emotional resonance.

And, like it or not, stories will have influenced the products and services you buy and the charities that you support. You’ve probably consumed all manner of stories today, through all sorts of formats. Which stand out?

Stories resonate for many reasons. Legends and fables were passed verbally from parents to children to warn them of dangers before writing materials were accessible.  Stories can be memorable.

And they are persuasive. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated the importance of appealing to emotion in communications. Think you’re a rational being? Of course you do. So do I. But evidence consistently shows that appealing to your audience’s emotion is considerably more effective than appealing to logic alone.

There’s more – much more – enough, in fact, for a shaggy dog story. Stanford Business School’s Jennifer Aaker invited her students to give one-minute pitches. Only one in 10 used stories within them. But asked about what they remembered of each pitch, 63% remembered stories and only 5 percent recalled statistics.

In crowdfunding campaigns, widespread data shows that campaigns including emotion AND statistics are more successful than campaigns that only include factual information.

So stories are invaluable for effective communication. They can help your messages to achieve exponential impact.

Across whatever communication channels you use (and tactics do evolve faster than strategies – in fact I’d argue that the bedrock of effective communication strategy hasn’t changed for hundreds of years despite ongoing evolution in tactics) – you can use stories.

Aren’t we in danger of emotional overload? No. But it’s worth learning how to use the “power of story” in your work.

Fancy some tips? Here are a few:

  1. Don’t ask for permission to tell a story or feel the need to introduce it, just dive in. Whether it’s a presentation, an interview, your email newsletter, a blog, a piece of writing: start your story immediately. On my radio show, guest Deborah Bullivant of Grimm and Co launched straight into a story as soon as she was introduced. Listeners loved it – get hold of the podcast here
  2. Give people cliffhangers. From the works of Dickens and the Brontë sisters, to long running radio soaps such as The Archers, and from TV dramas to podcasts such as Serial, authors consistently use cliffhangers and gentle teases of what may or not be coming up to prompt curiosity. But this technique isn’t confined to episodic formats, nor to fiction.
  3. Be personal. Share something true about yourself. Let your employees, customers and clients speak about you. We’re humans and we engage in professional relationships with other humans. Being “professional” doesn’t mean being the same as everybody else.
  4. Can you engage all the senses in your story? Then the sweet smell of success will be yours!
  5. Does a story need to be short? No. Long? No. The answer, of course, is “it depends!”
  6. Just get on with it. Listen, read, watch, observe – and then unleash and test your own stories.
  7. Would you like more advice?  A storytelling in business workshop can take place at your premises, with your team. You’ll experience numerous examples of great storytelling – in a range of contexts – and we’ll work through ideas you’ll be able to apply. Contact me here or through Keep Your Fork Ltd for more details.

[I originally wrote a version of this piece in February 2017, ahead of the Third Sector Café event in Sheffield, at which I ran a short workshop. Enjoyed this? Please share it using the buttons below.]

Valuable advice for your values-driven business

Join the VeitchVantage list – for FREE tips, advice, interviews and analysis to help grow your business or social enterprise, achieve your goals, and get the media coverage you deserve.
Your email address is secure and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Speak Your Mind


Share This