What’s in a Story?

Storytelling is an old tool, one that's provided context and captured our interest for hundreds of years. This week Marli Mesibov, a content strategist who specializes in storytelling, explains why it works so well, and how we can use it to improve our company's strategy.

In 2006 and 2009, studies were published showing that fiction readers were more empathetic than their non-reading counterparts. In 2012, further studies showed that the areas in the brain that activate when a person tells a story are also activated in the listener. In other words, years of study led researchers to conclude something that most of us instinctively know: that the stories we (as individuals or as companies) tell our audience directly influence the thoughts and actions of those who listen.

Few people remember the year the Titanic sank, although most of us learned it in middle school history. Yet the movie Titanic immortalized every detail of the sinking ship in the minds of millions. Equally, content strategists and designers must constantly tell stories to inform the perspective of their prospective users.

Put simply: stories are more engaging than facts, and we all have the power to tell them. In this article we’ll review not only the importance of stories throughout the history of human beings, but also the ways that we, as content strategists and designers, can create stories that provide context for our target audience.

Why stories?

“People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live, and why.” – Arabian Nights

Storytelling is an invaluable means of communication, dating back thousands of years. Greek and Roman mythology, for example, explained everything from the changing seasons to life and death. One Greek myth is that of Pandora’s box:

Pandora was the first human woman on Earth. There were Gods and there were Titans, but no humans. So each God gave Pandora a gift: beauty, charm, music, curiosity, and persuasion among them. Zeus, ruler of the Gods, also gave Pandora a box (or a jar, in the original Greek), and told her not to open it. Curiosity being one of Pandora’s gifts, she eventually succumbed and opened the box. Out flew disease, hatred, war—all sorts of terrible things. She managed to close the box before hopelessness could fly out.

The Greeks used this tale to explain all of the world’s evils and how humanity could hold hope in spite of them. True, the Greeks could have merely passed along “facts” from one generation to the next. They could have told their children “there is evil in the world, and yet you must continue to have hope.” Instead they used the power of story and, in so doing, created something that’s been with us for over 3,000 years.

Today, well branded companies use a similar approach. Many of us forget that sneakers are not an exciting purchase, yet Nike tells the stories of professional athletes who started out “just like us.” We buy their story and, consequently, the shoes that come with them. State Farm insurance doesn’t focus on paperwork, either. They tell a story about enjoying family time and having friends to help out in times of trouble. We purchase their insurance in hopes of buying into the camaraderie they present.

Content creators are storytellers

But information doesn’t naturally come in story form. On the contrary, many companies begin with “facts” such as “our sneakers decrease knee injuries” or “our application saves users time when they look up recipes.” This non-narrative approach may be less compelling, but what it lacks in panache it makes up for in opportunity. By adding context to facts, content strategists can provide their audience with a story rather than a table of benefits and functionality.

As a content strategist myself, I recently helped a company craft a story to provide the necessary context for their new online community. After speaking with a few of their target users—those in the “nutrition web” space—we began to establish the company’s story. We asked a second group of target users if they would like help finding healthy recipes for evenings when guests joined their family for dinner. We looked for chances to weave story into every aspect of the website: stories about family dinners, stories about children growing up, stories about busy days with only a few minutes to relax. Our target audience responded incredibly and traffic increased!

So how did we do it? In order to develop the best stories, we followed a four-step plan: We Researched our audience, Established our story, Added in details, and Distributed copies.

Research

The first step to communication is learning about our potential audience: where they spend their time, what information they need, what vocabulary they use. We do this through listening.

Ideally our companies have a sense of who their prospective users might be. By interviewing five people (be that as vague as “iphone users” or as specific as “moms in their 40s with teenage kids, full time jobs, working in the tech industry”), we obtain a gestalt of the vocabulary our users are comfortable with (also known as a vernacular or a lexicon) and some of the stories with which they might empathize.

There is no shortcut to this part, unfortunately. Just as there’s no shortcut to learning about a blind date—all the Google searches in the world won’t tell you what you’ll learn during an actual conversation—there is no better way to learn about users than to just sit with them and listen. We do that best by way of ethnographic interviews, interviews or conversations designed to do nothing more than understand who our target audience is and how they spend their time.

The questions to ask are simple: ask users to explain what they do at work all day; ask them to describe the details; learn what acronyms they use and how much work impacts their daily life; ask them about their families; ask them how they spend their free time. Most of all, ask them what frustrates them, at work or at home. Everyone seems to warm up when they’ve been invited to complain a bit!

Establish the story

Once we understand our user’s stories, it’s time to tell our own. For many people, this is the hardest part of the job: crafting a story our company wants to tell.

Nike’s content strategy team clearly follows a trope in which a beginner athlete moves to the pros. Perhaps this is based off research in which many members of their target audience said “if I had better sneakers, I would run more. I always wanted to run a 10 mile race.” Someone who responded this way would obviously feel a connection to a commercial in which an athlete transitions from beginner to winner.

The best product stories are aspirational, providing a gateway into a world created by using the product or service. In service of that story’s creation, content strategists need to frame things with a clear beginning, a middle, and end. Consider the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood:

  • Little Red Riding Hood wants to visit her grandmother. (Beginning)
  • She meets the wolf, who eats her and her grandmother. (Middle)
  • The huntsman kills the wolf, and Red Riding Hood lives happily ever after with her grandmother. (End)

Companies can employ a similar structure. If Motorola’s target audience includes “parents with full time jobs,” and Motorola knows those parents have a common thread of guilt—insofar as they wish they could be in two places, the office and home, at once—the company might craft a story like:

  • Joe wants to spend more time with his family. (Beginning)
  • Joe buys the new Moto X phone, which allows him to work from anywhere. (Middle)
  • Joe leaves the office early, to take his family on a picnic. (End)

Add details

Remember, stories give us context. A story that’s devoid of personalized details fails to create context and, therefore, fails to make a connection. This is why, according to Aberdeen Group, personalized emails improve click-through rates by 14%, and conversion rates by 10%.

Many content strategists miss the mark here. We create an outline (the beginning, middle and end) based upon our understanding of our audience, but we neglect to add personalized details. No one cares about a story of a person who goes for a walk, walks into a house, and then gets kicked out when the owners return. What makes the story interesting is what it expands into. The person changes to a little girl. The strangers become bears! The bears become a family. The family enjoys a morning walk. This explains why they were out of the house. The little girl becomes Goldilocks, a very curious girl, who is always poking into other peoples’ business. And on and on and on.

If Goldilocks had a Twitter account, it would likely be filled with reports on bears, recipes to make oatmeal, and pathways through the woods. These are the personalizations that make a story compelling. Over time, the number of details woven into a social media strategy might expand as the character of Goldilocks (or the brand personality) expanded. The Twitter feed might include information on her favorite types of breakfast, or personalized emails might mention even less-obviously-related items, like a book she happened to be reading.

The story behind our companies must expand in a similar way. What makes Home Depot’s Twitter feed so interesting is not just the deals it offers; it’s the non-hardware-related articles the feed promotes that still appeal to its customers. Customers who align with the Home Depot brand enjoy DIY projects, humorous contests, and family-centric holidays.

Distribute

Finally we have to distribute the story itself.

In theater, it’s commonly said that the show is not complete unless it has an audience. The same is true of a story. A story is nothing without its audience. The best part is that the same story may have multiple parts—and therefore multiple audiences—across multiple mediums.

Nike’s brand story, for example, is told through their commercials, their website, on their Facebook page, and on their Twitter feed. Nike tells different parts of that story in every communication with every user. They’re not trying to sell; that’s just a byproduct. They’re engaging their audience by offering articles, videos, cartoons, and other news that’s custom-tailored to a given interaction.

But that’s Nike. Not every audience can be found on TV, Facebook or Twitter. Some companies find their users on LinkedIn, or Quora, or Instagram. The key isn’t to go to a specific place. The key is that, through user research (remember step one?), we can learn where any audience member spends their time, online and off. Then we work to join the conversations whenever and wherever they take place.

Tell your story

For each individual brand, we can follow these steps to improve the overall user experience and better engage the user. Every story embodies a personality, which we can personalize for the target audience to make our product or company friendly and focused. Storytelling is in our genes, and it’s a tool everyone on the UX team can—and should—use!

This article’s lead image is copyright Mike Shaheen.

About the Author

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a love of education and games. Her work spans game design, web applications, and mobile. Marli can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on UX Design, literature, and Muppets.

Related Articles

4 Comments

  • Ronell Smith Reply

    Marli,

    Have to say, this is the first storytelling piece I’ve found enlightening, accurate and meaningful. Most storytelling pieces are, at best, meh-level, light on substance, heavy on storytelling-as-panacea.

    It’s as though content marketers feel a story is all a brand needs to be successful.

    As you make clear, it’s the getting to the story, uncovering the layers of a brand and tying that exposed area to the user,that matters most.

    As content strategists, we deal in the messy, the disorganized, which serves to hone our skills at sniffing out stories. (Not to mention we must be a patient lot.)

    Also, by beginning the storytelling process with the user in mind, we’re ensuring the content has a much better chance of resonance, creating a win for user experience and usability.

    Thanks, Marli. I always enjoy your work.

    RS

  • Marli Mesibov Reply

    Thanks Ronell – I’m glad this was useful to you. I wonder if, given your comment on content marketers vs. content strategists, storytelling might be one place we could all meet in the middle.

  • Asif Ameer Reply

    Wow that is something interesting article, i wish i could speak infront of clients something like that. I get nervous whenever clients sits next to me lol. Anyway Thank for sharing

  • Andy Smith Reply

    It occurred to me that writing has never been a more important aspect of digital marketing than it is now. I find myself encouraging the parents of students ‘make sure they are writing!’

Leave a Comment on This Article