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.
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.
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.
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?
Alongside factual information and statistics, how present are relatable human experiences within this content?
Would metaphors, diagrams, images or data visualisations make the subject of this content more vivid to the reader?
These questions can be summarised and pulled together into three core elements of storytelling in content:
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.
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.
Joseph Phillips is fascinated by the art and science of compelling digital communication. He’s passionate about assisting organisations to adapt their mindset, skills, and resources to communicate better, publish smarter, and tell better stories on the web. Learn more on his website, Or connect on Twitter.
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