People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Why? because stories matter – and we all know it. As best-selling author Frank Rose explains in his book “Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence… it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener – an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.” Adding: “Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.”
The power of stories
Famous slogans are imbued with meaning, hinting to the stories that lie behind the brands themselves. Just think about how; Apple thinks differently, Guinness is made of more; and Nike just do it. An important thing for brands to bear in mind as in the words of American Author Simon Sinek, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”.
This power that is held within stories has been proved by science too. An analysis of data by researchers David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom found great storytelling had the ability to result in the release of brain chemicals that motivated people to help.
Good stories take work though, they need to be carefully crafted and it can be difficult to ensure that people hear them when they are done. So how do brands harness this power of storytelling for themselves? Well, I believe we can all learn a lot about storytelling from looking at certain influential figures in our society. Famous faces that have mastered the art of telling stories that have changed the way we think, spearheaded changes in our laws and inspired global action.
Storytellers to aspire to and channel
Sir David Attenborough
Surely the epitome of great storytellers is Sir David Attenborough – the naturalist who helped the world ‘wake up’ to plastic. Sir David’s natural world documentaries have been inspiring and educating the public for fifty years, he has been named the most popular person in Britain, and his documentary series Blue Planet II changed the way we all think about plastic.
The most-watched TV show of 2017, Blue Planet II reached over 14m people and in the series finale spotlighted how eight million tonnes of plastic pollutes our Oceans every single year. A devastating story of the human impact on nature, the reality of single use plastic was brought home by a scene where a whale tried to eat a plastic bucket. Orla Doherty, the series producer, explained the mission behind the episode was to highlight the severity of plastic pollution and help public understanding that if action is taken now, there is hope for the future of our oceans. Since the show aired and people realized they had a role in the story of protecting the future of our oceans, there has been a shift in public behaviour with widespread shunning of single-use plastics and even a UK ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton buds.
Without doubt Greta Thunberg’s story is proof that strong storytelling has the power to enable new characters to inspire and influence people worldwide.
An interesting and inspiring storyteller, Greta is the teenage environmental activist from Sweden who featured on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people list. She has spoken at the UN Climate Change Conference and has criticised world leaders for failing to act on a climate crisis that is stealing her future.
A great public speaker and storyteller, Greta has Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism all of which means that she only speaks when necessary. Her carefully chosen words have great power and have created something called the “Greta effect” – something summed up last year by Ofcom noting an increase in British children using social media for activism.
If you are in any doubt of Greta’s storytelling power read this snippet from her speech at the UN Climate Action Summit and see how it makes you feel:
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
For someone so young Greta is already having a huge impact – even helping halve the growth of global air travel since raising awareness of its environmental impact. But more than that she also demonstrates the power of a great storyteller with an important story to tell.
Disney and Pixar
It is not just storytellers who are powerful in instigating change though, the stories themselves also hold great power. Disney and Pixar, who have crafted some of the most loved and successful stories of the last century, suggest that there are 22 rules of storytelling to know about if you want to have an impact.
From a branding perspective rules 4 and 14 on Pixar’s list are particularly relevant if you want to articulate stories better:
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally __
14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
To understand just how useful these rules are consider how TOMS – a footwear brand that has a strong story to tell – appears to have used them. When you apply the structure outlined in rule 4 their story fits neatly into the mold with great effect:
Once upon a time there was an American traveller called Blake Mycoskie. Every day, he loved to travel and dream of his next adventure. One day when Blake was travelling in Argentina, he befriended some local children from a rural village. Because of that encounter, he noticed that they had no shoes to protect their feet. Because of that they created TOMS, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need. Until finally they’d given 86 million pairs of shoes to children in need and what started as a company has become a movement.
Or alternatively, you could consider the example of how Greenpeace used the story of one orangutan and a little girl to help tackle palm oil in their 2018 campaign ‘Ran-tan’. Raising awareness of the 25 orangutans lost every day due to the destruction of their natural habitat to produce products made using palm oil it used a beautifully animated story, narrated by Emma Thompson, showing an orangutan causing havoc in a little girls bedroom. The point being that the girl learns that the orangutan has no home of her own, with the takeaway message:
“There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do, you destroyed all of our trees for your food and your shampoo”
A simple, yet powerful story that again embodies rule number 4’s structure it was told in just 90 seconds and spurred 1.2 million people to sign Greenpeace’s palm oil petition and several businesses commit to removing palm oil from their products.
It is not always easy knowing how best to tell your brand’s story but by thinking about what you can learn from great storytellers can help. When it comes to how to bring stories to life, think about personifying your brand. If it were a person, who would they be? How would they speak? This may feel silly when you first do it but it can be invaluable in helping establish the right tone of voice for your brand.
Building brands and creating compelling marketing campaigns are so important and storytelling plays a fundamental part in the success of both. Great storytelling can help shape public perception of your brand and if your story resonates with people and you treat them well, you’ll be able to foster a relationship that will one day turn them into brand advocates. Together, these brand advocates will help you realise your ambitions sooner as you’ll be telling stories about your brand together so take the time to get it right.
- History of storytelling
- Forbes – Science Says, If You Want People To Respond, Tell A Good Story
- Blue Planet II tops 2017 TV ratings
- Devastating Footage of Plastic Pollution to be Shown on Blue Planet II
- What Greta Thunberg teaches us about storytelling