To transform your brand, tell a superb story

We look at three companies that do it right

What do Barack Obama and J.K. Rowling have in common? What about Walt Disney and Malala Yousafzai?  

Barack Obama changed the course of history in 2008, winning the US presidential election by uniting the nation through story. J.K. Rowling has told some of the most well-known stories in the world, which she used to build an international franchise. Walt Disney captured the imagination of young and old, both on-screen and in-person for nearly a century. Malala Yousafzai is changing the world by empowering young women by telling her story of overcoming adversity, winning a Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Each of these individuals is incredibly different from one another, yet their passion, work ethic, and strong visions unite them…and it was through superb storytelling that they rose to the top of their fields. 

Storytelling is something that is fundamentally human. Our ancestors communicated through stories long before a single cave painting was drawn or a word was carved into a stone tablet. Stories convey ideas that make people care, which is what makes storytelling so powerful: it sparks action. People don’t buy products, they buy stories. 

However, as author, Brad Shelton, says: “Great storytelling is also hard as hell, which is why there are so few great storytellers.”

The TED organization hosts hundreds of expert speakers each year on the topics of technology, education, and design. There are accounts of TED speakers developing, rehearsing, practicing, and refining their 18-minute TED talks for months, many of whom speak professionally for a living. The storytelling expectations are high on the TED stage and author Carmine Gallo demystifies what makes a TED-worthy talk in his book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. He suggests incorporating the three modes of persuasion developed hundreds of years ago in ancient Greece: ethos, logos and pathos. Ethos refers to establishing credibility, logos refers to the need to support your argument with data, and pathos refers to appealing to emotion. 

Furthermore, marketing guru Seth Godin has a lot to say on the topic of corporate storytelling (he wrote a whole book about it, after all!) Godin’s perspectives on marketing are always unique and this is no exception. He believes that great stories capture the imagination of the audience, thereby enabling the audience to perpetuate whatever lies they want to tell themselves. He believes that great stories don’t appeal to logic, but instead they appeal to the senses. Godin believes that great stories don’t teach anyone anything new; instead, they support the existing worldview of the audience, increasing their feelings of security. In his book, All Marketers are Liars, he proves his point elegantly. He asks the audience “Why did you buy this book?” It wasn’t because we knew what was inside. “In fact, the only way people know for sure if they’re going to like a book is to read that book, at which point it is unnecessary to actually buy a copy…you bought this book because of a story you were able to tell yourself.” Checkmate.

Tell me a story that’s true and makes me care

The proliferation of the internet—including social media—has enabled brands to share their stories with millions of people relatively easily. But with this relative ease also comes noise, clutter, and a highly competitive communication landscape. So even if your story is being heard by millions, is anyone actually listening? 

There is a lot of excellent information out there about telling great stories and crafting narratives that make people want to listen. For example, author Bree Baich suggests the ACE formula:  audience, channel, emotion; while Paul Jarvis finds five commonalities in great storytelling:  simple, emotional, truthful, real, valid. Similarly, creative director Brad Shelton has established four traits of great storytelling:  align on a shared purpose, start in the heart, focus on a unifying theme, and engage all the senses. There is no shortage of theories, frameworks, and lists to help marketers become better storytellers…but let me add just one more. There are two common themes in everything I’ve learned about telling great stories: connection and authenticity. In other words, tell me a story that’s true and makes me care. 

Telling compelling stories

The act of storytelling is becoming more and more a function of the marketing team. There are so many ways to tell stories about the work a business is doing and there’s no shortage of tools to get the job done. No matter the medium, it’s the message that counts and the message needs to establish connection and communicate authenticity. Here are a few examples of businesses who are leading the pack as exemplars in corporate storytelling.

Kickstarter 

Kickstarter exists to “bring creative projects to life”. Their platform—which has attracted more than 14 million financial backers to date—is one big storytelling machine. Their site provides a platform for creatives to tell their stories and sell their ideas. To the average person, the Kickstarter process could seem like a scary, unknown, and complicated undertaking, but Kickstarter responds to this challenge brilliantly. They strip away the excess and ease users into their site, helping users not become overwhelmed and have their creativity blocked. After clicking on ‘Start a project’, users are taken to a page that simply states, “Bring your creative project to life.” Underneath are images of the faces behind three successful Kickstarter campaigns that each raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, with links to each of their campaign pages and updates about their creative projects. 

This brilliantly simple page immerses users in these stories and forces them to read between the lines: anybody can make their project come to life and be wildly successful using Kickstarter. Kickstarter doesn’t try to give them the hard sell about why, how, or when they need to upload their creative project. Instead, they let visitors come to that conclusion on their own. By not bogging them down in the details, they enlighten and inspire creative projects on their platform.

Jenna Kutcher

Jenna Kutcher runs the wildly successful Goal Digger podcast with nearly 300 5-star ratings on iTunes to date. She’s a photographer, marketing coach, and entrepreneurial maven who turned her Craigslist camera purchase into a million-dollar venture…and she’s not even 30 yet! Kutcher is a storytelling master and her greatest strength is her authenticity.

Kutcher excels at providing consistent and authentic messaging to her audience, as well as connecting to them in a variety of ways – Instagram, her blog, and podcast. She both knows who she is, as well as who her people are and she speaks directly to them. This is Kutcher’s secret sauce, as she would say. For example, she is a positive body image crusader who often bares skin on social media and she isn’t afraid to open up about her miscarriages. This is hard to pull off, all the while staying on-brand and mixing this content with marketing and business advice. She knows that her stories aren’t for everyone, but that’s what makes them land so well; she speaks directly to her people without watering down her message for the masses. As they say, “if you’re speaking to everyone, you’re speaking to no one,” and Kutcher speaks to hundreds of thousands of followers who cling to her every word, every day.  

charity: water

charity: water is a US-based organization that helps bring clean water to the developing world. While there are lots of competing not-for-profits vying for donor money, this organization stands out through its authenticity and connection both before and after money has exchanged hands. 

100% of privately donated money is used to fund water projects and the charity provides updates about where and how that money is being used. They share the names of local organizations they have partnered with and the specific work being undertaken with statistics that help validate their work. In their updates they also share stories about community members who will be positively impacted by the clean water project. Stunning photography and minimal text helps to beautifully tell their stories. 

Ultimately, great stories are ones that we remember. Great stories connect to their audience through emotional messaging and they commit completely to authenticity.  It’s no exaggeration to say that great stories have the power to transform the world. They inspire listeners to become participants and take action. Great stories are inherently sharable and create brand evangelists who spread the word on behalf of the organization, without ever having been paid a dime. Tell a superb story, transform a brand.

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.