By Ethan Stine
The first time I told a room full of white-collar professionals about my ex-colleague’s near-kidnapping while we were promoting prize fights in Istanbul, I learned the real power of storytelling. And you’re paying attention now too, aren’t you?
It’s a true story that I’m usually excited to tell (mostly because we got him back in one piece), but what I came to understand from the first few times recounting the tale was that ignorance and boredom are potent poisons, and stories contain the antidote. So much of our lives are spent in routines and, when a window opens up and we get to peek through someone else’s lens, we can’t help but look. We want to understand, and we want to be entertained.
The Evolutionary Power To Move People
Whether or not it registers on a conscious level, for most people, stories are part teachers and part entertainers. They define our understanding of the world around us, functioning as a sort of series of dress rehearsals to help us build comprehension about things that we’ve never actually experienced. They’ve become so evolutionarily critical to us as a species that our brains have developed to release a series of chemicals in response to a good, character-driven story: Cortisol makes us sit up and pay attention, while oxytocin builds empathy and connection, and dopamine rewards us for keeping engaged with the narrative.
Let’s pause for a minute to consider the awesome power of that. We can convey information in a way that can move people to action. Without raising a finger, human beings can compel other human beings to feel and think in certain ways, and it’s because we’re programmed by evolution to do it. The ethical considerations are enormous. Despots frequently rise to power by positioning themselves as the leading characters in the story of our connected lives, portraying themselves as messiah figures who can “right the wrongs” of society. Good storytelling can be extremely dangerous when used by bad-faith actors.
Assuming you’re not a bad-faith actor, however, and looking at this through the lens of a communicator, is there anything more noble and powerful to learn how to do? Stories create new opportunities for us to learn from each other, and they motivate us to be better. They teach us about ourselves and serve as our escape from the mundane. A well-told story can be an enormous force for good, a vehicle to drive positive change and introduce innovation in our world.
An Industry-Agnostic, Evergreen Skill Set
Two years ago was when I really registered the pervasiveness of my hopeless addiction to stories. I was neck-deep in field interviews, collecting dozens of customer stories to feed to hungry sales and marketing teams at a newly minted business-to-business (B2B) unicorn, and suddenly it dawned on me: “I can’t get enough of this stuff.”
I was working alongside a team of delightfully qualified consultants, kicking whichever doors stood between us and a juicy narrative, documenting anecdotes and uncovering how some of the biggest and most innovative businesses in the world were using technology to overcome their prickliest challenges. How did a Fortune 500 cosmetics business shave weeks off the time it took them to get cash in the door from their biggest customers? What organizational shifts were happening among Europe’s largest manufacturers in response to the global demand for green energy? People I used to work with in the entertainment business asked me if I was bored in the corporate ecosystem, and I found myself surprised to tell them, truthfully, no. I was constantly learning and endlessly entertained. I was hooked on the story.
Today, I’m building out a fledgling (but supremely talented) marketing team at a series A venture that’s focused on supercharging productivity in the building industry, and you wouldn’t be surprised to know that the stories in this industry are also incredible. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have encountered a surplus of interesting people, and the stories I’ve heard from the folks creating our skylines from glass, steel and imagination are already contending for some of the coolest. Who wouldn’t want to go to dinner with the people who built the tallest towers in London and New York and hear about the challenges they surmounted along the way? Who wouldn’t want to meet the people building our skylines — universal symbols of human creativity, capability and progress?
The point is, there’s always something interesting worth knowing and sharing, no matter which industry you’re working in. The ability to get people to open up and translate their narratives into something that moves people is a totally evergreen set of skills that will serve any marketer for a lifetime.
The Power Of The Story-First Marketing Organization
When my team and I connect with customers, we proudly tell them that we’re a story-first marketing organization, and we tell them that we want to know their story. Our success as a team is dependent on more than just having successful customers — it’s contingent on us being able to unearth and understand their tales of struggle and success, and then our capability to shine a light on the good work they’re doing. We spend time thinking through media formats and delivery mechanisms. But without a good story to tell, a cause simply cannot be successful.
The imperative for those of us in marketing and communications roles? If you want to be successful in moving people, first always ask, “What’s the story?” Once you have the answer, put it at the heart of your marketing.
Also, don’t wander off with friendly strangers in Istanbul, but that’s a story for another time.
Feature Image Credit: GETTY