4 Pitfalls of Storytelling and How to Avoid Them

Companies must avoid four common missteps when making stories the cornerstone of their communications​​​

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Sep 20, 2018 · 4 min read
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During a volunteer session at San Francisco-based nonprofit St. Anthony’s Dining Room, I heard many facts, but also a story that I’ve repeated dozens of times: A client left his engineering job to care for his wife, who had cancer. Their insurance ran out, and by the time she died six years later, he had sold his home, depleted all his savings and seen his engineering skills wither. He needed St. Anthony’s. It could happen to anyone. The statistics faded quickly, but the story stayed with me.

In this digital age, brand perceptions and relationships affect how customers, employees, partners and others evaluate their options when making a purchase, applying for a job or collaborating. It is critical for brands to communicate not only their offerings but also the purpose and heart of the organization. This task is made difficult by limited budgets, a glut of content and audiences that are disinterested and skeptical.

Signature stories — authentic narratives that intrigue, involve and communicate who you are — break through distractions and disinterest to change perceptions, inspire and generate memories. Hundreds of studies have shown that stories are two to three times more effective at conveying a message than reciting facts.

What is stopping organizations from making stories the cornerstone of their communications?

1. Don’t Believe and Don’t Commit

2. Impact Stories Cannot Be Found

Brands with utilitarian offerings must develop higher-purpose programs to feed their stories. Soap brand Lifebuoy developed three stories of how its hand-washing program helped children survive in three Indian villages. Video stories documenting the effort garnered 44 million views.

3. Weak Presentation

A frequent error of storytelling is a lack of specific examples or details. Detail that makes the story vivid and intriguing will draw people in. Knowing the personality and motivations of a character can help the audience empathize and understand the challenges he or she faced.

Be intriguing at the outset. The story should grab the audience’s attention with the opening line or moment. Consider a story that begins, “It was a drab and rainy day in mid-May 1931 when the 28-year-old Neil McElroy, the advertising manager of P&G’s Camay soap, sat down at his Royal typewriter and wrote perhaps the most significant memo in modern marketing history.” What did the memo say? Why was it important? Who is this guy? What happened to him? You notice. You read on. You remember.

4. Mismanaged Story Program

A huge problem, especially for firms that have avoided the first three pitfalls, is story overload. There is a tipping point after which there are too many stories for employees to manage or for customers to grasp. Organize your stories by message and prioritize stories by their level of influence. Stories can also be combined into meta stories. Molson Beer’s master story about creating a hockey rink in the Purcell Mountains for people who would do “anything for hockey” was surrounded by stories of the building challenges, the people selected to play and the final game.

Signature stories can transform wasteful, ineffective communication programs, but organizations must overcome these four pitfalls to fully take advantage of them.

About the Author | David Aaker

David Aaker is vice chairman of Prophet, the author of Aaker on Branding and a member of the Marketing Hall of Fame.

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Marketing News features original news coverage, exclusive insights, trend analyses and more.

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Written by

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The American Marketing Association is the essential community for marketing professionals and academics looking to put answers in action. #oneama

AMA Marketing News

Marketing News features original news coverage, exclusive insights, trend analyses and more.

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