Storytelling is more than just another marketing buzzword.
A good story, told well, brings order and clarity to the chaos of our world.
Stories can summon forth meaning where there was once confusion; communicate complex concepts in relatable terms; and elevate a solid argument on a well-worn subject into a compelling, inspirational address. Facts get forgotten, stories get repeated.
In this sense, every content strategist, regardless of the industry they work in and the nature of content they’re working with, is a story strategist. Because all content is communication and storytelling is the most powerful form of communication that exists.
We’re hardwired to understand ourselves and others through stories
A story, once broken down, is a series of cause and effect events. That’s how humans are built to make sense of just about everything. Our ability to recall the past and imagine the future is a defining aspect of our humanness.
We’re all constantly weaving our own little narratives all day long. Whether it’s thinking “what should I cook for dinner tonight?”, replaying a past event in our head, or pondering, “did I turn the oven off before I left the house?”, storytelling isn’t a learned skill—it’s something we’re literally built to understand the world through.
In her book How to Stay Sane, Psychotherapist and writer Philipa Perry explains:
We are primed to use stories. Part of our survival as a species depended upon listening to the stories of our tribal elders as they shared parables and passed down their experience and the wisdom of those who went before. As we get older it is our short-term memory that fades rather than our long-term memory. Perhaps we have evolved like this so that we are able to tell the younger generation about the stories and experiences that have formed us which may be important to subsequent generations if they are to thrive.
- A good story will automatically make your message more relatable, compelling, and memorable—because we’re all hardwired to want to understand the world in this way.
- Stories aren’t just something that your audiences are open to experiencing within your content—they’re something that we’re all, every single human being, literally programmed to want and need.
- Our audiences not only want stories—they need them. By making storytelling a significant part of your content strategy, you’re tapping into that primal need and helping the people who matter to us understand us and themselves a little bit better.
Stories are scientifically proven to engage emotionally and create empathy
Maya Angelou once said:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Stories speak uniquely to the emotional part of ourselves like no other form of communication can. That’s the part of us that’s really pulling the strings behind our every waking judgement and decision.
Stories act like keys that unlock a deeper. empathetic understanding for the people and things outside our own immediate experience. And (here’s where things get really interesting) there’s a growing body of scientific research to prove it.
We needn’t look very far to observe and appreciate this science of storytelling in action. We’ve all experienced the intolerable pain of being made to sit through a dense Powerpoint presentation packed full of bullet points and dry data, right? The content itself may well have been of great significance and relevance to us. But the format in which it was delivered? Yawn-inducing.
In contrast, if we recall one of the most memorable talks we’ve recently sat through, it’s obvious that something significantly different was at play. Whether it was a professional presentation, a speech at a wedding, or a favourite TED talk, it’s likely that the speaker’s ability to communicate their ideas powerfully, in ways that stuck, was likely down to their use of storytelling.
What’s at play, here? Well, according to a growing body of neuroscientific research, when we’re presented with “hard facts” information—boring slides containing dry bullet points, or when we passively take in details on public transport signage—it only activates a particular area of our brain (called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) associated with the simplest form of language processing. I.e. We decode the incoming words into meaning. And that’s it. There’s nothing much else happening to make that content memorable beyond the fleeting moment of its comprehension.
When someone experiences a good story on the other hand, well… everything changes. A 2012 study reported in the New York Times, suggests that reading a story, with its imaginative metaphors and reported experiences of others, ignites the parts of our brain linked to the actual experience of the subject being read. In other words, it ignites empathy.
For example, metaphors involving texture, such as “the singer had a velvet voice” stimulated activity in the sensory cortex of participants, the part of the brain responsible for actually perceiving texture through touch. As reported:
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated…. Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed… novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
- If truly memorable communication is defined by what it’s able to make someone feel above anything else, then the primary challenge for content strategists is creating content that is not just factually understood—but emotionally engaging. Storytelling achieves that better than any other form of communication.
- When someone engages in a story, they’re not only processing information—their brain is actually creating a simulation of the experience you’re describing.
- By using storytelling in your content, you’re getting someone to not only process what you’re trying to communicate, but to literally experience it.
Building storytelling into how we audit and evaluate content
Storytelling isn’t just a tactic to support marketing. It’s something that has a huge part to play in all our content, no matter the topic or business area it’s supporting.
Dig deep enough and there will always be ways of making even the most seemingly dry and uninspiring web content more human, compelling, and relatable. We’ve just got to be looking out for those opportunities.
A good starting point for unearthing those opportunities is to add storytelling as a content evaluation criteria when it comes to auditing and analysing your content. If we agree that storytelling is a hugely influential factor in our content’s success, then just as we weigh up criteria such as accuracy, clarity, and usability, we should also be analysing our website’s storytelling performance.
Some suggested questions to help evaluate a piece of content’s storytelling value:
How well is this content communicating its intended message and purpose by speaking to emotions, not just logic?
- Is the tone of voice warm, informal and addressing the user directly in 1st person, or corporate, overly formal and speaking from the point of view of the organisation?
- How are any calls to action included in this content (products, offers, sign-up invitations) being presented? Do they lead with relatable benefits that make obvious how they’ll solve a real problem or improve someone’s life in some way—or do they lead with matter of fact features that only make sense to the organisation?
Alongside factual information and statistics, how present are relatable human experiences within this content?
- Is factual information around this topic being brought to life by human stories that demonstrate or support your message?
- What mix of content formats are being used to share these experiences—text, images, video, or audio? And are they the most appropriate for the context?
Would metaphors, diagrams, images or data visualisations make the subject of this content more vivid to the reader?
- Are highly technical, complex or scientific concepts being broken down into easily understood ideas through the use of analogy and metaphor?
- Is appropriate photography being used effectively to emphasise a point?
- Are diagrams and data visualisations being included to tell “the story behind the facts?”
These questions can be summarised and pulled together into three core elements of storytelling in content:
- Emotionally appealing communication that makes content more compelling.
- The inclusion of real human experiences that users can relate to.
- The application of metaphor, images and visualisations to make concepts more vivid.
Sometimes your story may only have one of these elements, other times two. But when all three are present, that’s the sweet spot of ensuring our content has storytelling as its core.
Conclusion: go tell your story
Storytelling is knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.
That quote sums up what a lot of content strategy boils down to.
A content strategist should be a masterful storyteller, investigator and curator. By breaking down and analysing the elements of storytelling present in our web content, we can start to more effectively use the power of story to support our goals, and relate on a human level to the people that matter the most to us. Our users.