I’ve always been captivated by stories.
As a child, my parents frequently caught me asleep with my book resting on my face because I told myself “Just one more chapter” one too many times. Today, I have a “to read” list on Goodreads several hundred books long. I am constantly juggling a long list of library holds. I have at least two books on my nightstand at any given time. And if I have my headphones on, I’m probably listening to an audiobook instead of music.
What is it about stories that has me so hooked?
Stories take us beyond our reality. Only within the pages of a book is it possible for me to ride a broomstick in a strange game called Quidditch or craft the perfect defense for a high-profile murder case. As we journey through these stories, we meet captivating characters that present a unique experience we can learn from. I can bond with four girls over the challenges of high school friendships or experience something completely unknown, like the trauma of fighting in the Vietnam War.
We also encounter stories beyond the pages of a book, and for good reason. Studies show that we are 22 times more likely to remember stories than facts. It’s why I can remember every detail of a conversation I had with a friend two months ago, but I can’t remember what I need from the store without writing it down in at least three different places. It’s also why we’re drawn to and remember marketing and public relations campaigns that do more than just describe a product or service, like Google’s “Year in Search” videos.
It’s my love of stories that drew me to pursue a career in communications. I could explore different worlds and connect people with unique challenges, viewpoints, and solutions. And I’ve found that by following the same guidelines that make a great book, communicators can tell captivating stories for companies and brands as well:
- Set the stage: For me, there’s nothing more frustrating than being plopped into the middle of a story with no context. To really draw a reader into a story, they need to understand where they are and what’s important to the world they’ve just entered. I think J.K. Rowling is a master at world building. Every detail from the owls flying overhead to the smell of Butterbeer makes the reader feel like walking down Diagon Alley is as familiar as strolling through their neighborhood. The same is true in brand storytelling. You can’t assume your audience knows what it’s like to work on a farm or the ins and outs of the semiconductor industry. What are the norms? What are the challenges? What makes this place unique? Draw your audience into your world and show them why they should care.
- Build the characters: I always end a book feeling like I’ve made a new friend. I’ve spent hundreds of pages getting to know their thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams. Sticking with the Harry Potter example, you journey with Harry as he learns he’s a wizard, enters Hogwarts for the first time, makes new friends and develops a new sense of identity. You care about what happens to him. Every brand has a main character too. For example, for a health IT solution provider, it’s the doctor seeing 20+ patients a day, working tirelessly to give every patient personalized care while balancing paperwork and working with their staff to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly. Putting a person at the center of a brand story gives the audience an opportunity to step into the main character’s shoes. Maybe they are a doctor who is experiencing the same challenges. Or they’re a patient who wants to better understand their healthcare system. A main character opens the door for greater connection with a brand.
- Develop the conflict: This is that “Just one more chapter” feeling. The anticipation of whether the hero will defeat the villain. (After six books, will Harry finally defeat Voldemort?) There must be a challenge to keep the story moving. Similarly, every brand story must make clear the challenge it aims to solve. You’ve set the stage and brought in a character, but why do they need what you have to offer? For example, for a company specializing in rugged devices, you set the scene of a fire chief trying to access building blueprints and track the location of every firefighter on a consumer laptop while smoke fills his eyes and water sprays on the screen from a nearby hose. But it’s overheating, and he can’t read the display. That helps the audience make the connection that he needs a better tool to lead his crew and manage the emergency.
- Present the resolution: Whenever I finish a book, I often sit for a second, book closed, eyes closed, and take in what just happened. Sometimes, if it was a really good ending, I read it again. I’ve lived in this world, bonded with these characters, and experienced every twist and turn, and now it’s time to soak up how the author chose to bring the story to a close. Is there a lesson to learn? New idea to explore? Action to take? Like a good book, the best brand stories stick with you beyond the page. The audience has a clear call to action – a new idea to bring to their next team meeting, a new technology to implement, or a new partnership to consider.
Maybe one day I’ll make it through my Goodreads list. (If you have any recommendations, send them my way!) But I’ll never stop searching for the stories all around me and looking for new ways to tell a few of my own.