If you’ve had any interest in promoting your business in recent years, you’ve probably been exposed to a tidal wave of information about storytelling marketing. In a nutshell, the movement was and continues to be catalyzed by brain research which highlights what we’ve intuitively known all along: If you frame the content of a website or any presentation in the context of an human narrative, multiple areas of the brains of both the storyteller and the listener are activated, making the message more relatable and thus, more memorable.1
Research shows our brains are not hard-wired to understand logic or retain facts for very long. Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories. A story is a journey that moves the listener, and when the listener goes on that journey they feel different and the result is persuasion and sometimes action.
–Jennifer Aaker, Marketing Professor Stanford Graduate School of Business
We’re simply wired for story. In many ways, the survival of our species–our ability to make sense of our place in a complex and often scary world–actually depends up on it.
For this reason, storytelling has become big business with hefty emphasis on finding one’s authentic voice in order stand out online. After all, no one can replicate your unique blend of personal experiences, passions, skills and distinct interests. If you can get clear on why you do what you do, as well as how you landed where you are–from a marketing standpoint, you’re golden.
An entire industry has taken off to teach micro-businesses and global corporations alike how to mine that gold–to hone in on those “watershed events” that have thrust us into a new way of thinking, compelled us to seek justice, or pushed us to innovate and take on new challenges.
I wholeheartedly agree with all of this and weave it into the Clarity Sessions I offer to my clients, but being a bit of a contrarian, I can’t help but question what is potentially becoming a formulaic status quo in my industry.
Everywhere I turn, it seems I’m reading personal stories that are focused on the founders of a company without highlighting what should be the most beautiful and inspiring story of all–the stories of their customers.
In our quest to stand tall in our shining uniqueness, crafting ourselves as the heroes in our Rags to Riches or David vs. Goliath tales, we might be missing the boat, sidestepping the one thing that can catapult an ordinary business into an extraordinary one. Truly, if you want to authentically stand out and leave a legacy for the world, there’s room for only one hero: the people you serve.
Truly, if you want to authentically stand out and leave a legacy for this world, there’s room for only one hero: the people you serve.
A few years ago, around the same time the personal storytelling movement was starting to take hold, I sat down for dinner at Orlando’s, a restaurant here in Taos known for its odd location of bathrooms in addition to authentically delicious northern New Mexican cuisine. On this particular night I happened to be in the company of my friend, Michael G. Smith, a poet from Santa Fe and my friend, Larry. Since I happened to be working on Michael’s website at the time and he also happens to be a storyteller, the topic of story arcs in marketing infiltrated our discussion that evening.
“Hearing someone tell their own story can be a bit boring to me,” Larry commented.
To be honest, I was a bit deflated. Here we were, sitting with a client whose visual story I was tasked with telling, and there he went, contradicting the other contrarian at the table.
(Oh, the irony!)
Being an inquisitive scientist and meditator, Michael’s curiosity was piqued, “How interesting, why? ”
“Well,” Larry continued, “for me, the most interesting stories are the ones we tell about someone else. If you want to tell a memorable story, inhabit the world of someone else.”
“But, no one can tell a story better than the person who has lived it,” I chimed. “Autobiographies are usually more interesting than biographies penned by someone who is merely researching a life that is outside of themselves.”
He had a bit of a hard time finding the words to adequately support his thesis, finally saying, “I’m not doing the best job explaining what I’m trying to say. Maybe it’s just something you have to experience. All I can say is it’s much more powerful, at least to me, to tell someone else’s story… it’s just more compelling.”
I remember Michael, in his characteristically calm way, quietly pondering the idea. We all sat for a few moments in silence. Perhaps we were remembering a time in the past when we had shared the story of another… or more likely, considering how easy it is to go into autopilot when describing what we do for a living, making it “all about ME.”
And then, two years later, I cruised into the video below with the inviting subtitle: Become a Part of Someone’s Story. I’m pretty sure “being a part of” is what my friend was trying to articulate that night, and I can’t deny he was, and is, entirely right.
Is this the best way to tell a story? Watch this video by the World Vision Clean Water Project and decide for yourself:
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it was like a clear bell rang in my heart when I read those words. A deeply human element fell into place and could be expressed in the heart of what I was up to. It really would be possible for me to take a holistic approach to my web design and presentation services, combining my deeply held values of fairness, transparency and beauty by inhabiting the stories of the people I most wanted to serve.
Telling Your Tribe’s Story
The best stories, whether they are applied to teaching the next generation on how to be decent human beings, or crafted to communicate how we are in the business world, aren’t one dimensional. The narratives that sweep our hearts upward, inspiring both the speaker and listeners toward a deeper purpose aren’t about the unique experiences of just one person. The best stories touch upon the resonance and power of community and invite the listener into the tribe–to become part of that world.
The best stories touch upon the resonance and power of community and invite the listener to become part of that world.
The trouble with this flavor of storytelling? It can’t be condensed into a marketing formula. The stories of the beautiful children in the video above simply can’t be faked, which is precisely why they are so powerful, and precisely why their uniqueness cannot be contrived into a 10-step e-course.
If you want to captivate your audience and transform the world in the making of your business, a sure-fire, unpredictable and unreproducible way to do so is to step into the circle of someone else’s problem. Widening our understanding to include the conflicts our clients are experiencing is the only way we can work together to surmount them.2 Only then, after seeing through their eyes and bearing witness to their struggles and triumphs, we are able to tell the most memorable stories whose primary purpose isn’t just to sell something.
What a gift it is to really get this! The most powerful impression we can leave on the world emerges when we step beyond the context of the story of Self to make room for the quest of someone else. Yoda understood it, as did Dumbledore and every Native American tribe. Becoming a catalyst for learning and transformation in someone else’s world has a way of inspiring the world of everyone it touches.
1 Cognitive processing research from Princeton University | 2 Why Your Brain Loves Storytelling from Harvard Business
Creative Director, Susan J. Preston, began freelancing as a web designer in Washington, DC in 1996. Her presentation design has appeared in animations, webinars and presentations for The Pew Foundation, iovation, Bloomberg BNA, Eli Lilly and The Discovery Channel. Since 2010 she has resided in Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico, creating websites for creative professionals and entrepreneurs with a focus on clear and effective visual communication which clearly communicates and inspires audience engagement.