MESH Interactive Agency Blog

Why Storytelling Isn’t for Everybody

It turns out that storytelling is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

While you may not be smearing red ochre on cave walls as did your ancestors, you do have something in common with them–the ability to communicate through storytelling.

Telling a powerful story has been a central goal of communication since the first grunts and body language of those that came before us.

The stories they shared focused on conventional wisdom and life experiences to keep them alive in their harsh environment. Fast-forward to the current era. Cave walls have been replaced by the blank page of word processing programs.

Now, instead of wild animals, you target prospects and customers. Instead of spears, you are armed with stories. But just as a single spear would do little to defend against the more ferocious prehistoric versions of animals we know today, stories don’t exactly do what they should 100% of the time.

Why not?

Enter Annette Simmons, author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, which focuses specifically on how to find, cultivate, and use stories — and cautions when not to use them.

Whoever Tells The Best Story Wins by Annette Simmons

Turns out, a story has about as much of a chance resonating with a reader as a mere coin flip. Stories work about “50-70%” of the time, according to Simmons, who draws the conclusion that using stories doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense, depending on the situation.

For example, technical procedures, such as communicating with hospital staff how to administer IVs, require rules and policies — in other words, direct instruction.

Stories are better suited to nontechnical perspectives, such as the:

  • Presentation of food in the restaurant industry
  • Shopping trends in retail
  • Kindergarten classroom management tips from a veteran teacher

These same tales can often be used as horror stories of what not to do. For example, consider this Samsung video for the Samsung 840 EVO Series Solid State Drive. In the video, the dialogue sounds generic and the characters are typical of those featured in training videos most teens see at their first job.

To further point out why stories aren’t universally applicable, STIR, a magazine supporting economic development at the community level, identifies the problem with storytelling. According to STIR:

…the problem is putting too much emphasis on the communicator and not enough on the nature, characteristics, and context of who organizations are communicating with. Or the relation between the participants. This is a problem that is rooted at a basic level in the English language, in the very nature of the metaphors we use to describe the communication process.

Basically, this means marketers tend to hyper-focus on the communicating entity instead of the audiences that the organization is trying to reach. Put another way, the problem with storytelling is that brands make themselves and/or their product(s) the hero, not the customer.

And you want to do the opposite of that.

For example, consider Hootsuite’s “Holiday Mean Tweets.” Inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweet videos, Hootsuite decided to launch their own version in the frame of Santa’s helpers.

Hootsuite probably chose to do this because just as Santa’s helpers create the toys Santa delivers in his sleigh, Hootsuite helps companies deliver messages to their customers. In that sense, Hootsuite really is acting like Santa’s helper.

Statistics about Storytelling

Statistics on storytelling.

If you need more advice on how to make the customer the hero of your story, just look at a few of the best copywriting books for further instruction.

Teach by Example

A surefire way to reach organizations you’re trying to connect with is to put your story in context. In other words, actually live your story. While you learn by doing, you also teach through example.

Mark Shaefer, author of Born to Blog—a manual for building a blog from the ground up—suggests you set that example just by living your life:

You are being watched. Your colleagues observe your behavior in meetings. Your neighbors watch you play with your children. Your spouse watches your reaction to financial pressure. Although you aren’t teaching by instruction, you are teaching by example.

Living is the primary way bloggers teach their audiences… Their actions become examples, and those examples become lessons for us to learn from.

Although the book is about blogging and not storytelling, Schaefer may be onto something here. If you craft your stories based on your experience as someone who writes for a living, you stand a good chance that your story will effectively connect with your audience.

For example, Disney was ranked as the top authentic company according to Business Insider. Those who work at Disney are referred to as “cast members” and are not allowed to break character while in costume.

This enables Disney to remain customer-focused, as well as make customers the star of their own stories in a way that’s fresh.

Speaking of being original, it’s one thing to reach the organizations you’re after and teach them with a good story. It’s another thing entirely to get them invested in the story you’re telling.

via GIPHY

This means you can tell the best story ever, but if the listener isn’t interested, they won’t be invested. That’s why when telling a story…

Authenticity Matters

Seth Godin wrote about this in All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories, specifically:

Recent research on brain function has focused on… [the way we’re able to] deal with the significant amount of information we process each day… Once we’ve made up our mind, once we’ve got some assumptions about causation and we’ve made some predictions, then we stick with them. We ignore contrary data for as long as we can get away with it and focus on the events we agree with.

Some people believe those viewpoints that support the ones they already had. For example, Leon Festinger, the pioneer of the theory of cognitive dissonance–the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information–suggests that if people don’t agree with a story, they’ll find a way to justify their viewpoint, regardless of facts or the presentation of new information.

For example, you may know people who don’t wear a seatbelt, despite overwhelming evidence to support why they should. They choose not to anyway, offering their own reasons against it.

The Moral of This Story

You’re never going to persuade 100% of your target audience 100% of the time, even if your story is solid.

Regardless, in the words of Canadian poet and bestselling author, Margaret Atwood, “You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.”

When it comes to marketing, the trick is knowing how and when to use it.

What have you found to be the most effective ways to get prospects invested in your story? Drop us a message in the chat below to share how your stories have won and how others have fallen short.

Jayme Severance

As the Junior Copywriter at MESH, Jayme brings a quality craftsmanship and artistry to assignments he creates, as well as a bit of motion to the office as a freestyle dancer.

Marketing Agency

MESH is a digital marketing agency that has pioneered Account-Based Marketing via our proprietary Outcome Driven Marketing (ODM) methodology. We keep our focus on tightly integrating (or MESHing) lead generation, inbound, and outbound methodologies. We help you understand the hidden levers that impact your customers’ buying decision process, develop the right marketing strategy for your unique business case, and effectively execute and measure all aspects of your Account-Based Marketing program.