Is storytelling the latest buzzword?
One of my best examples of storytelling involves an X Factor audition. It was fleeting; I scarcely made it beyond the rejects’ hall, but it’s a great icebreaker for job interviews and such like.
“Tell me about yourself.” In true Katie mode, my default answer is to ask how far back they want me to go – do they want me to start with my days on The X Factor? Charmed as ever. She’s got the job.
While we all love a good anecdote, it seems we’ve put the term “storytelling” on a pedestal in recent years. Note the spike in Google Trends results from the end of 2021 onwards – notably, when they claim to have “improved their data collection”.
Why are we putting storytelling on a pedestal?
So many marketing methods, so little time. Paid ads. Organic search. Leaflet distribution. Storytelling? Are these “stories” incentivising customers to act, or could they not care less?
In 2019, Forbes published an article discussing why brand storytelling is the future of marketing. In the same year, a fellow frustrated marketer expressed his frustrations about the overkill of the term. Like so many others, “storytelling” had become a buzzword.
The concept has been conflated with things like authenticity, humanising content and engaging users on an emotional level. All lovely on paper – but perhaps overdone, and irrelevant, even?
Does anybody even care?
The wonderful brand and editorial designer Grace Abell put out a LinkedIn post back in April 2023, telling us that we didn’t have to “tell our story”. In true candour, she admitted that she got into freelancing because nobody would hire her full-time. Hardly makes for a great sell, but it’s refreshingly authentic, isn’t it?
It got me thinking about other brands’ stories. Yes, Amazon started off selling books in a garage, but is there a shred of anything human left there now? Here’s the other thing – you might have the most amazing backstory in the world. But is it going to make me buy your product?
That’s pretty cool. Will it make me run faster? No. You know why I buy those shoes? Because my podiatrist recommended them. Another marketing method: social proof.
The case for telling our stories
Of course, in the interests of balance, there’s many a case for a good story. This study cites sources as early as 2011 (gasp!) that support storytelling in marketing:
- In 2011, not a single LinkedIn profile listed “storytelling” as a skill
- This number rose to 5,000 marketers in January 2012 and 21,000 by June of that year
- By 2017, 570,000 marketers on LinkedIn had listed the term on their profiles.
Today, we even have a directory specifically for brand storytelling agencies. Inspired by the likes of Super Bowl ads, Coca-Cola campaigns and LinkedIn gurus, these agencies have firmly found their calling.
The science behind storytelling
Perhaps before critiquing it too harshly, we should dig deep into what storytelling actually is. Hubspot is the first result when we ask the Google gods:
Storytelling uses words to create new worlds and experiences in a reader or listener’s imagination. Storytelling can impact human emotions. It can also lead people to accept original ideas or encourage them to take action. Since storytelling can take so many forms, creating a good story can be challenging.
That last bit’s interesting. There are so many different ways of telling these stories. We might say we want to make money (honest). We might be inspired by octopuses (yawn) or we might even make them up. Ah, fiction. What better way to stir up that so-called “emotional engagement”?
Stories and emotions
Love them or hate them, the John Lewis adverts get tongues wagging every year. And I hate to break it to you, but bouncing Boxer dogs and men on the moon do not exist. They do the job though – brand sentiment analysis by Real Eyes showed that 83 per cent of us viewed Monty the Penguin positively while Buster the Boxer came third for sparking emotion.
A 2021 TED talk by leadership consultant Karen Eber looked at the science of stories. Eber talks about our occipital and temporal lobes lighting up as we listen to stories. In fact, we feel the same emotions as the storytellers themselves – known as “neural coupling” – which is why action films make us feel so immersed when we’re sitting still.
But will these stories sell our products?
Let’s not stray too far from the point here. Does storytelling help us as marketers, yes or no? There are arguments for each:
- Google’s Helpful Content update prioritises content that showcases first-hand experience, such as product reviews. Boom, I’ve tried it. Here’s my story. Social proof.
- Some John Lewis Christmas ads have been labelled a flop – with eagle-eyed consumers pointing out that, despite Elton John’s appearance, the retailer does not actually sell pianos.
So, there are pros and cons to using fiction. We talk about the “hero’s journey”. A hero goes on a journey, takes on an epic battle, returns home victorious and learns a lesson. In a more simplistic sense, we could look at the narrative of any book or film – conflict arises, hero battles it out, conflict is resolved. House floods. Homeowner phones Direct Line. All is well.
But not every product is as easy to shift – which is why we need another weapon in our marketing arsenal.
Enter: data storytelling
We’ve all seen that oft-cited graphic that uses Lego to illustrate data storytelling. Again, it’s overdone, but it has a point.
In isolation, data is dull. It’s hard to comprehend and we need to crunch numbers to make conclusions. Tell a story alongside the data and you’ve got yourself a winning formula. At Women In Tech SEO 2023, Lazarina Stoy explained that the building blocks to successful data storytelling are data, a strong narrative, and eye-catching visuals.
Returning to Eber’s TED talk, she discussed how data informs us, but emotions drive decision-making. Referencing Antonio Damasio’s study on the role of the amygdala (the brain’s emotional processing area), she states that we also need to feel something to make decisions.
You can bombard the board with figures on how many patients used a new radiotherapy unit. You could also tell them how it cured an eight-year-old boy’s cancer.
And hence, we intertwine storytelling with so many other marketing techniques, be they case studies, product reviews or ad campaigns. So, the question is:
Is storytelling just another buzzword?
Without context, storytelling is absolutely just another buzzword. Nobody cares that you rear your own cows. They want delicious milk. On the other hand, combine it with social proof and data, and you’re onto a winner:
- Stories for stories’ sake have no purpose – they need a call to action and a reason to believe.
- Humanising content is fine but it’s not always necessary and depends on the product.
- Backing up stories with data and real-life use cases will drive decision-making.
Settled? Good. Now, if you’ve got no interest in buying anything from me, you can read some of my unfortunate but somewhat amusing stories here:
6th May 2023