People tell stories from ancient times, using different tools. At first there were drawings on stones, then words, intonations, and gestures appeared. Stories are everywhere: we tell them to our friends, read them in books, watch them in movies. We love stories, we remember them, and we want to share them with others.

Today we are going to look at the stories from a business perspective. When we hear a product presentation or an investment pitch, we come across stories without noticing it. So, how can stories help us develop new ideas, promote products, and increase sales?

The history of stories

The ability to tell stories is a form of ancient art. People shared stories when they lived in caves and made their first attempts at rock art. Over time, more advanced storytelling tools began to appear. Now we have paintings and illustrations, languages and gestures, books and films. Moreover, presentation software such as PowerPoint, is also a tool that helps tell stories. 

Why do we need stories? They help us understand each other, unite us, and change the way we think. We want stories to be memorable, to be retold, because that is how we can keep the story alive. The main goal of any story is to change the listeners’ world at least a little, to make them think differently, take a fresh look at old problems.

And the power of stories, in contrast to facts or data, is that they create a connection with the listener on an emotional level. We feel the stories with our hearts, empathize with the characters, and immerse into the plot.

 

Blank

What is storytelling?

Literally, storytelling is “telling stories”. Any kind. Legends and myths of the past, famous novels, movies or cartoons, theater plays, business presentations – all of this is storytelling. This is not a separate genre or type of a story, but rather a tool that can be used for different purposes.

There are three main components of storytelling:

  1. Context. Understanding the audience, who exactly you tell the story to. How do they perceive it? What exactly are the interests of this audience, what causes the greatest response?
  2. Preparation. Choose the time and place for your story, as well as the way of telling it (you can use text, voice, images, or video).
  3. The story itself. The process of storytelling and the structure of the narrative. It is how the story will be delivered to the audience.

All these elements affect how interesting the story is, how deep the audience feels with it.

Let’s start from the beginning: what is a story and how to tell it?

Any story begins with an idea. This idea – the key topic – is something that should be remembered by the listener. Then the narrative is built on the basis of this idea. Usually, a story has main characters and the world in which they live. The story can’t exist without the main character. It is not necessarily a person, it can be some kind of creature or even an object. The main character is at the center of the narrative and the audience sympathise with the character’s actions and emotions. The world of the story is the context, the surrounding environment where the main character exists.

The main character always has a goal to achieve and a motivation for it. The goal can be different: anything from a small trip to changing the world. Motivation is the underlying reason why our hero sets out on the journey. Also, no good story is possible without a conflict. It is an obstacle that prevents the character from achieving the goal. Obstacles can be real (for example, a long distance or an evil character) or internal (like fear or uncertainty).

Storytelling and Business

Recently, storytelling has been actively used in marketing. Indeed, a well-told story helps the brand find new customers and like-minded people. Stories attract listeners with similar values, which means that with the help of a good story, a company finds customers or employees with a similar worldview. Moreover, a good story can help the brand and the company to be remembered for a long time.

For example, today Santa Claus and Christmas are associated with Coca-Cola. But do you know why? At the beginning of the 20th century, the Coca-Cola company faced a problem – there was low demand on their product during winter. No one wanted to buy cold drinks when it was freezing outside. So, the company decided to find a character that people would associate with winter, and use him in a promotion campaign. They created a fully new image of Santa Claus – an old man with a white beard in a red suit with a bottle of Coca-Cola in his hand. Thus came around a story that Santa Claus loves Coca-Cola. And today, almost 100 years later, this story is still popular all over the world!

Blank

Blank

Marketing is not the only business function where storytelling is useful. We use stories in user research, when developing new ideas and products, when seeking for investments, and, of course, in sales. Storytelling is effective in business because in many ways its goals correspond with the goals of business presentations – to change the world of listeners, to make them look at the problem from a different angle. When developing a new product, we want people to remember it. During the investment pitch we want investors to remember our project and believe in its success. In sales we want customers to believe that our product will make their lives better.

There is a good example of how stories affect sales. David Phillips in his TED talk tells about an experiment in which researchers bought 200 simple items on eBay, with a total price of $129. Then they asked writers and editors to create stories about these items – one for each. After that, the same items were put up for sale again with these stories in the description. The result exceeded all expectations! One of the items – a figure of a horse’s head – originally bought for $0.99, was sold for $62.95 with the story added! In total, all of the items were sold for $8000. This example illustrates how the story can add value to the product in the users’ eyes.

How to use storytelling?

When we speak about business context, it is not necessary to create a story according to all the rules: with a separate world, a main character, a series of obstacles, and risks. It is enough to use some elements of storytelling that will help you reach your audience, touch their emotions, and evoke empathy.

We suggest 3 following steps to create an effective story:

  1. Help the audience feel your idea on an emotional rather than a rational level. In other words, help them understand you. Try to make them feel with your story.
  2. Make the story real. Ask yourself the question “Why is this important to the audience?” If they can recognize themselves in one of the characters, they will care about the story and will probably remember it.
  3. Use all your senses. Illustrations, videos, questions to the audience – any engaging tool can be useful. This will help the audience stay within the story and move along with it.

Sources and materials:

  1. Blake Snyder, Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, 2005
  2. Robert McKee, Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, 2018
  3. Jonah Sachs, Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future, 2013
  4. Annette Simmons, The Story Factor, 2006 
  5. Course: University of Applied Sciences Potsdam – The Future of Storytelling 
  6. Course: Pixar in a Box: The Art of Storytelling