Here’s Why Storytelling Matters for Your Business + How to Do It Better
An effective content strategy tells a story that attracts an engaged audience through curiosity, draws them into a narrative that reflects their own experiences, builds a relationship between them and your brand, and demonstrates how your product can solve their problem.
Content is a long-term effort that sustainably builds an audience, pipeline, and customer base. It’s an investment in a narrative that changes how businesses market and sell. It’s the tedious work of relationship building, of conveying (true) empathy, and of supporting without condition. It’s a belief in a product that can solve people’s problems — and the confidence to sell the product implicitly and in a way that gives the audience control.
Content marketing is storytelling, and effective content is derived from a carefully crafted and deeply intentional narrative.
To enable marketers to develop a cohesive story that is delivered through content, this article will:
- Explore why storytelling is a powerful tool.
- Review the history of storytelling to better understand its role and impact in the present time.
- Breakdown stories into their core elements and analyze how these elements impact the quality of a narrative.
- Share a step-by-step strategy for businesses to harness storytelling for long-term success.
Stories are Elemental to the Human Experience
The human experience is founded, interpreted, and shared through stories — think of the nostalgia we feel for crackling campfires, teeming movie theatres, and hallowed libraries.
Stories are how we are assimilated into our native culture and how a heritage sows a worldview and value system. Stories produce a collective narrative that breeds belonging, cooperation, and kinship.
Throughout history, storytellers have been associated with cultural icons — consider today’s artists, authors, actors, and directors.
Stories define us.
Within family units, stories are vital to the connection shared between members. I grew up hearing stories about my Dad, who was raised in the same city as me, and I took on those stories making them a part of my identity and how I perceived the place in which I lived.
And while I only briefly knew my maternal grandmother, I can recite stories about her from having heard my mom recount them time and time again, and these stories are now a part of my life and my worldview.
When I’m with my siblings, we spend hours remembering the humorous and hard moments of our upbringing, and these are how our partners better understand us and their relationship to us as individuals.
Stories are what make us human.
Storytelling is an evolutionary tool for survival. Neurological studies find that stories are essential for building empathy, connection, and emotion, and the very languages we speak were developed as mechanisms for social cooperation.
By fostering communication and building culture founded on shared stories that connected people, our ancestors were able to partner and create agricultural, urban, and defence systems.
Stories are not just an aspect of identity, they are also an outlet for stress, sadness, and fear. After a long day, we might open a book or turn on a show to escape and to refocus our minds. Stories give us a sense of control in randomness and meaning in chaos. They are a reflection of our humanity and a tool for problem-solving, evasion, and reasoning.
History of Storytelling
While storytelling persists as a vital tool for our species, the mechanisms of storytelling have evolved throughout history. Starting with visual storytelling, we see carvings and murals like the Chauvet Cave paintings in France drawn over 30,000 years ago. And at 1000 BC, oral storytelling gave rise to the Greek Myths, which we still study to this day.
Written storytelling is traced back to 700 BC with the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was carved into stone tablets in ancient Mesopotamia. Continuing to the late 20th century, written storytelling was maintained as a mechanism to document and distribute stories, from religious texts to Shakespeare to fairy tales to newspapers and magazines.
And in the mid-20th and 21st centuries, new mechanisms for oral and visual storytelling emerged with radio and television, which are extended by the more modern podcasts and video as well as other digital media platforms. Even now, storytelling and how we experience stories continue to evolve with virtual and augmented reality.
The history of storytelling alongside the evolution of human invention — whether it is language, alphabets, or VR goggles — is a quest to broaden how we share, receive, and experience stories, from cave walls to FB walls, as Joe Sabia described.
The Four Elements of a Story
Stories rely on curiosity, which seizes our intrinsic drive to know what happens next, to captivate our minds. Throughout the course of a narrative, the audience experiences the story as though they are the protagonist. They live vicariously through their thoughts, experiences, emotions, and challenges.
What is a story?
A story is a tale of how something happens (plot) that affects someone (protagonist) as they pursue a goal (story problem) and how they change as a result (theme).
To understand then how to harness storytelling, it is essential to understand how to craft the four basic elements into a captivating and clear narrative so that it stokes an intended emotion and drives a specific action from the audience.
Start with the end in mind.
What is it that we want to impart to our audience? If we consider the history of storytelling and its use as a mechanism for cooperation and community building, stories are rooted in the resolution and the lessons they impart; it is why stories were created. Stories teach us something, anthropomorphize our own experiences, and reflect our humanity back to us through the theme.
The theme defines what the audience will walk away with and how the story will impact their worldview.
And every aspect of the story — the characters, plotlines, and conflict — feed the theme.
To create a theme that readers understand, specificity is key. People can’t think in the abstract, so our stories must lie in the specifics. We must strip our stories of the frivolity of excess details. The origins and journey must drive the audience to the theme and immerse them in it.
A story’s universality relies on its ability to draw readers to the resolution and allow them to experience it and make it their own.
From the start, engaging stories introduce a conflict that builds anticipation and suspense and hooks the audience.
The protagonist’s journey revolves around this conflict. It’s what makes the narrative interesting and worth our while.
As the conflict mounts, the story problem reveals itself to be both external based on the events of the plot and internal based on the protagonist’s thoughts, fears, and concerns.
Ultimately, the story problem, is what results in the theme. What does the protagonist realize after enduring the conflict, or how does it change them?
This facet of the narrative lays the groundwork for the plot and the experiences of the protagonist, and to do so it must be inseverable from the theme.
For a story to be effective, the conflict must be captivating and consuming.
Give structure to the narrative.
Our brain seeks causality, so as the plotline evolves throughout its twists and turns, we must include a pattern of setups and payoffs.
Plots deeply understand the experience of the protagonist and know exactly why one event will cause another event to happen. They are both internal and external, meaning plots rely on external events and the internal thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the protagonist.
This series of challenges that confront and stump the protagonist heighten the audience’s attention.
And while the plot can be complex with subplots and weaving storylines, all elements must be pertinent to the story problem and theme. The greater the reader can distinguish the plotline and understand the purpose of the different events, the greater the storytelling and the ability for the writer to transmit the theme.
The journey can’t be simple or easy or else it isn’t worthwhile.
Humanize the characters.
Stories take us into new worlds and adventures by allowing us to experience the narrative as though we are the protagonist; we feel what the protagonist feels.
There must be a sense connection with the protagonist built through a window into their thoughts, expectations, desires, and goals.
This inward expression of the protagonist expands the plot beyond the outward events. The protagonist’s thoughts, challenges, and fears feed us the why: Why are they embarking on this journey, and why do the events in the narrative arc challenge the protagonist and trigger their reactions?
Effective stories let the reader inside the protagonist’s mind with tools like flashbacks and backstory that tie our worldview with theirs.
Storytelling for Business
Storytelling for business through content is an evolution of how we approach our marketing efforts. A true inbound strategy puts the buyer first, humanizes the brand, and works off of empathy.
Storytelling is a long-term, brand-building effort that aims to develop trust by showing and not telling a brand’s expertise.
In an interview for Managing Editor Magazine, Olivia Jaras explains:
If you want to grow the next Facebook, if you want to create the next huge brand, you have to play the long game. You have to do that emotional work of slowly, painstakingly building trust.
You need people who excel at the emotional side of things, who are able to do that emotional work to create those customers that you want, the ones who feel supported, who can be those raving fans and become brand ambassadors.
Effective storytelling for business:
- Generates awareness by speaking authentically and providing expertise.
- Hooks the attention of prospects.
- Nurtures a relationship founded on mutual trust.
- Demonstrates the value of a product implicitly.
- Shapes their perspective as a customer.
- Gives them long-term goals that build long-term partnerships.
This approach is far more emblematic of HubSpot’s flywheel than the traditional funnel. Like the flywheel symbolizes, content is a compounding effort to build brand affinity that converts customers, who then amplify the brand’s message and bring more people into the narrative.
Storytelling is enticingly community-oriented, value-driven, and human. Here is how your brand can achieve this.
The Theme & Living Your Brand Values
The best stories tell us something about human nature; they change our worldview.
Your theme dictates how your audience will experience you; it also reflects the values your customers will embody by the end of the narrative arc.
Ask yourself, “What are your brand’s values?”. Then consider what these tell you about the problem you are trying to solve for your customers. The theme is the partnership that binds your company and your customers as they look to solve their problems with you.
Helping customers to adopt your values is what leads to the amplification of your brand through them.
It’s all about brand affinity.
What does this look like? HubSpot is an excellent example of this. They intend to help companies grow with a customer-centric mentality and a distinctly human focus. And they too embody this from the products they develop to the content they publish. As their flywheel espouses: attract, engage, and delight.
They care about selling in this manner because they believe in its efficacy, and they care about educating their audience because the audience can then continue to spread this message and live this worldview.
All interactions had with the brand feed into this value system.
The Story Problem & The Problems You Solve
Stories revolve around a problem that needs to be solved. It’s what hooks the reader and ignites their curiosity.
The conflict is the penultimate challenge protagonists must overcome, the foundation to the plots and subplots throughout the narrative, and the door to the theme you are trying to convey.
This is the essence of your business case: what are the problems you solve? Or, better — take your theme and ask yourself, “How do we do this for our customers? What does this look like in action?”.
In your content marketing efforts, use this story problem to connect with your audience, empathize with their challenges, and make them feel heard. This builds an authentic connection with your audience while also building yourself into their story and making you invaluable to their success
What does this look like? Maybe I’m biased because I love their Whiteboard Friday, but I find Moz does this well. Anyone who works with SEO knows that the Google algorithm is shrouded in mystery and is a difficult code to crack. Moz’s content understands this, and educating people about SEO is the premise upon which Moz was founded.
The brand’s content narrative is cohesively rooted in the problem it knows its audience is solving: earning traffic that monetizes its inbound channel. And while they don’t push it in their content, Moz’s product suite ties into the solutions they weave within their narrative.
But most importantly, Moz’s content wants its audience to know that their challenges are solvable, that Google can work in their favour, and that the tedious work of content marketing can have massive payoffs in the long run. By knowing these are solvable, the audience will look for a solution, and with trust already established, they will quickly find Moz.
Plots & Rhythm, Reach, and Resources
The plot drives the narrative to their story problem. It is a series of events that force the protagonist to confront this larger problem.
Plots are rhythmic; they are what move your audience. Think: if, then, therefore. If this happens, then this happens, therefore this happens.
Without a set of relating circumstances that drive the narrative, you will lose your audience. No one likes a boring story.
For content to be successful, businesses must brainstorm on questions like, “What are the multitude of challenges that our protagonists must overcome, what are their internal concerns or thoughts, and what external circumstances do they face?”.
These challenges are what will bring your audience to you. They will google these for a solution, talk to their colleagues and peers, ask their social networks, attend relevant events, and so on.
An effective content strategy reaches people with these challenges, brings them into your narrative at whatever point they are at on their journey, and hooks them from these entrance points.
Here, content blossoms. As your library grows, so do the points at which you can reach people. That’s why content is a compounding strategy, the more time and resources invested, the better able content is to reach your diverse audience.
What does this look like? Orbit Media attests that high-quality websites lead to better business results, and they take a multi-perspective approach to web design. Through their content narrative, they look at website marketing from a diverse set of ways that people can drive results online.
People might find their content while looking for ways to optimize a website for search, measure content ROI, or enhance the UX of a page. And their narrative speaks to all of these through different subplots that feed into the larger journey upon which many a web marketer embarks and how it knows my journey before I do.
It’s a rhythmic path.
If I’m trying to reduce the bounce rate on my blogs, then I will try reformatting for scanability. Therefore, I want to understand what formatting strategies optimize for this. If I try to add in more internal links, then I will focus on linking to high-converting pages. Therefore, I need to measure the performance of the click rates to the page and the conversion once people reach it. And so on.
This is an actual content path I followed on their site. As someone who is invested in this work, I’m hooked by the quality of their plot.
The Protagonist & Paving the Path
Who is the main character in your content narrative? Hint: it’s not you.
The main character is the person who experiences the story problem; it’s your target audience. This is the person whose problem you believe you can solve. Effective content is articulated from their perspective so that the audience can’t help but engage in the narrative, relate their experiences with it, and build a relationship with it and your brand.
Enable your audience to write themselves into the story.
What does this look like? Backlinko unabashedly speaks to content marketers and their challenges. It recognizes how content marketers perceive their work and produces content that seems personally designed to their needs.
As a content marketer, I feel as though I’m the main character in Backlinko’s content. Brian Dean does this in part by relating his own experiences to mine and my peers’ challenges. As someone whose primary channel is content, the advice and strategies shared are tested based on Dean’s work.
The challenges he expresses, the frustration he conveys, and the solutions he offers are designed specifically for the audience so that they see themselves in the content and as the protagonist in the narrative.
Our lives are painted in stories that connect us to people, that shape our identity and worldview, and that build belonging and cooperation.
There is a quote from the novel Sweetness in the Belly that I have kept coming back to when writing this article:
Once you step inside, history has to be rewritten to include you. A fiction develops a story that weaves you into the social fabric, giving you roots and a local identity. You are assimilated, and in erasing your differences and making you one of their own, the community can maintain belief in its wholeness and purity. After two or three generations, nobody remembers the story is fiction. It has become fact. And this is how history is made.
Businesses can harness this power of storytelling to build themselves into the fabrics of others by imparting empathy, expressing their internal and external conflicts, and offering tangible solutions rooted in a relationship.
Storytelling allows for greater reach of a business’s message. It develops trust from the audience. It shapes their perspective of the problem. It persuades them to connect their solution with your brand. And it builds a customer base that looks more like a community. Sounds good, doesn’t it?