Storytelling: Why it matters more than any other marketing approach

by Paul Furiga, on Jul 14, 2015

If a truth is actually universal, it should generate unanimous agreement. Here’s one: We all love a great story.

Great storytelling melts divisions, forges alliances and mobilizes us to act. It works when other approaches won’t. Understanding the principles that create great stories, and applying them in your own communications, will make the difference for your brand, your company or your cause. Authentic storytelling will produce success long after other communications or marketing approaches are derided as fads or cute parlor tricks.

What are these storytelling principles and why do they make storytelling matter more than any other communications approach?

The first and most important principle is biology. Our brains are hard-wired for storytelling.

As I have written previously, in this Princeton University work chronicled a few years ago by Wired magazine, researchers Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson discovered that effective storytelling literally creates something that Star Trek’s Mr. Spock could only fake in the movies and on TV: a mind meld between the storyteller and the audience. In other words, as an effective storyteller shares a great story, this causes changes in the brain activity of the audience receiving the storyteller’s message. Today, thanks to advanced brain imaging and other tools, science proves that great stories and great storytellers move their audiences at a biological level.

The second principle is cultural. Storytelling is literally the oldest form of mass communication among humans. Even before the advent of the written word, we know conclusively from archeological research that ancient societies employed storytelling. Beyond cave drawings, researchers have found other tools of the storytelling trade, from costuming used to dramatically enact tales, to implements such as talking sticks that recorded a people’s history for a tribe’s storyteller to literally feel and see his way along a piece of wood and share the stories that shaped the society.

The third principle is the logical link between biology and culture: Since storytelling is hard-wired into our brains, and because we’ve been able to do it since before early societies invented the written word, storytelling is quite literally the only communications approach that is self-contained from the start. No batteries and no assembly required.

This truth casts a different light on emerging fads and disciplines such as Transmedia Storytelling. I don’t think all transmedia storytellers hold to the belief that there was no effective storytelling before this emerging discipline arrived. But sadly, I see far too many practitioners who seem to believe that’s the case.

I’m not picking on transmedia storytelling (or any other flavor of storytelling). My point is this: Good storytelling works because it’s good storytelling, not because it’s hooked to social media, or video or stage production or a dark theater and Dolby Surround Sound and the latest fad, D-Box MFX Cinema Systems.

All of these things are great – but they don’t replace the science and the art of storytelling itself, they merely enhance it by adding elements, uniting elements or amplifying the reach of some elements of storytelling.

So at the heart of it then, has to be a great story, and great storytelling. But not just any story – it has to be a specific kind of story. There are plenty of storytelling charlatans out there who see storytelling in general as just the latest fad, or worse as just another parlor trick to get people to do what they ordinarily wouldn’t want to do.

Let’s be clear: There are absolutely times when you need to share a story that mobilizes people say, to defend their home against an overwhelming attack, or jump from the equivalent of a burning ship. I’m not talking about that kind of story. I’m talking about the kind that seems to drive too much of the world’s modern-day consumerism, the slicked-up version of the old medicine show quackery of rural America in the late 1800s that’s focused on selling things to people that they don’t need or want. You know, the stuff that drives the majority of traditional marketing and especially consumer-focused advertising.

So the great stories, the best stories combine certain elements that set them apart from quackery. They are the stories that we remember without prompting. They’re they stories we tell over and over throughout human history. They’re the stories that stir passion, drive innovation and yes, win battles.

Topics:media relationsstorystorytellingcommunication lessonsmarketing strategy
Paul Furiga-wordwrite-headshot
Paul Furiga
President and Chief Storyteller

Paul Furiga is President and Chief Storyteller at WordWrite. Follow him on Twitter at @paulfuriga. 

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