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Social Media Is Storytelling, So Tell Stories

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This chapter looks at how you can combine your personas with your storytelling to create powerful stories for your social media marketing and community engagement. It offers a structure and a way to capture your stories.

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This chapter is from the book

What You Need to Know

Along with our unending thirst for visuals, our brains are hard-wired to pay attention to and enjoy stories. If you can turn raw business information into visual story form, you are helping your message be heard.

There are many reasons why our brains love stories:

  • Because we can relate to stories, they often give us ideas about how to handle situations we might face.
  • Stories engage our emotions, and therefore they can help us cope with emotions that we are unable to express ourselves.
  • Stories give us heroes to emulate.
  • Stories often motivate, inspire, or strengthen us.
  • Stories can persuade others.

Stories engage both sides of our brain, mixing information with emotion. As we discussed in Rule 1 “Recognize the Power of Visual Persuasion,” engaging both sides of the brain is the most powerful way for you to reach your audience.

But, for marketers, the essence of storytelling can be deceptive. A lot of things we call stories are details of larger narratives that relate to branding. If we forget to help the customer link these details up to that larger narrative, we fail to engage the customer in the long term.

For example the brand idea for Apple is that you “Think differently” if you use Mac products. A piece of this narrative might be used in a market campaign introducing a new feature to the iPad. You link the idea that Apple is taking a different approach to this feature because they are the company that causes you to “Think differently.”

To understand how our brains receive stories, we need to look briefly at the construction of the brain. Neuroscientists tell us that we’ve made major breakthroughs in the past 10 years in our quest to understand the brain. They have discovered that our brains have three distinct “brains.” They are the cortex, the mid-brain, and what is often called the lizard brain:

  • The cortex is where we reason and solve problems.
  • The mid-brain is where we deal with our emotions.
  • The lizard brain is the one that reacts without thought. It helps you decide whether danger is coming.

As a marketer, you first encounter the lizard brain—the one that reacts with fear to the unknown and threats of harm called the “fight or flight”response. Your first goal in any story you tell is to make sure that the lizard brain does not perceive a threat.

One way to avoid engendering fear in the lizard brain is to slowly present a story with details and visuals so you don’t evoke the “fight or flight” response. The visuals help the brain process information ahead of the words.

The Bigger Picture

Customers are thoroughly engaged with companies when they share a context about the brand with others in the community. The rise of customer communities can be explained in part by looking at an article called “In Search of Charisma,” by Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher, in Scientific American Mind. Haslam and Reicher discuss the work of social psychologist John C. Turner, who defined the term “social identity.” According to Turner, social identity causes us to act in specific ways when we identify with a group or community.

For example, we exert influence on each another, we define ourselves as having an “us-ness,” and we believe that members of the group are more helpful in advancing the group interests than those outside the group.

This is how customer communities play their part in social media. People who are following companies and consider themselves fans are part of the “us.”

These customers check in frequently on the company’s social channels like Facebook to see what’s happening and try to participate. They become part of the community who understands the context for the brand’s actions. They relate and share experiences that bring them closer.

One of the most obvious examples of an “us” community is the group of Apple fans who support and identify as Mac users.

Customers Get Swept Up

So what’s the real secret to persuasion by story? It’s getting the viewer completely caught up in what’s going on. In effect, the viewer persuades herself by undergoing the transformation with the protagonist in the story.

This effect can be explained by a psychological construct called “narrative transport.” This concept is discussed in a September 18, 2008, article in Scientific American by Jeremy Hsu, a science and tech journalist, called “The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn.”

As Hsu discusses, narrative transport refers to the state of complete immersion in a story. The reader or viewer is swept away to the point where he is lifted out of reality and into the story itself. In doing so, he can identify with the hero and imagine that he is part of the story.

So what does this mean for your social media marketing? Can you hope to engage your customer to the point where he becomes sold? Perhaps.

Studies have been done that compare different advertisements to determine which one is more effective in creating narrative transport. One study by Jennifer Edson Escalas, Associate Professor of Marketing at Vanderbilt University, shows that creating a narrative for an advertisement for running shoes and adding strong arguments about the value of the product is more effective than the analytical pitches she created.

What worked? Here’s some of the copy:

  • “Imagine yourself running through this park. Your feet feel remarkably light. You look down and see a pair of Westerly running shoes on your feet. They weigh only 10 oz. You notice a spring in your step. Westerly running shoes provide strong support with their advance stability system. Westerly’s cushioning system spreads shock, reducing injury. Imagine yourself in Westerly running shoes to improve the comfort and quality of your morning run...”

You can see what is happening to the readers/viewers as they follow the story. They are imagining themselves running and being delighted with the lightweight shoes on their feet. They feel as though they’ve experienced something positive and want to repeat that feeling the next time they run. This motivates them to buy the shoes.

Why Are Business Stories Difficult to Get Right?

Business stories can be powerful. But stories created by companies can miss the big picture.

The key to a good story is to take the protagonist through a “trial by fire” and have her come out the other side a changed individual. The journey of that trip is the story. The problem with ineffective business stories is that companies create stories where nothing transpires and no one is different at the end.

So, what kind of stories are we talking about? One of the reasons it is difficult to create a business story is the fact that people are unclear about what a business story is. You know which stories are “regular” stories to you. You think of your favorite movies or the anecdotes you hear from your family at the dinner table and you’re not confused. Those are stories.

But what kind of story would you tell your customers to develop your relationship with them? There are several categories you can mine for these stories:

  • Stories customers tell: You want to tell stories that reflect the voice of the community. As part of the group that identifies themselves as customers and fans of your company, you want to make sure to reinforce the “us-ness” factor. Stories that customers tell are, of course, the backbone of social media. But you need to take an active role in scooping up those stories and making them part of your brand. You want to make sure that you display and retell their stories because they are the most authentic.
  • Stories about the company: These stories are a little harder to develop because they aren’t about how great you are. Those types of stories are floating around on your website and promotional material and are rarely believed by customers. Those are not the stories you want to tell. The stories you want to capture are those that tell how the company serves the customer.

    For example, tell the story of how the founders overcame great odds to start a company that would make something people really needed. How they struggled to find the right materials to make them environmentally safe.

    Anything that is self-serving is a waste of time. The old-style marketing that includes details about more revenue and higher profits should be saved for the stockholders. You want to let your customer know what you’ve done for them lately.

  • Stories about the industry and people in it: Most industries have stories of exciting trends and ideas that explain what they do. It’s important to connect with current topics and relate them to what you are doing.
  • Stories from inspirational leaders and mentors: Sometimes the best stories come from your mentors who inspire you. Write down the stories they’ve told you and see whether you can apply them to what you are doing. You should also mine for stories from the great leaders of the industry and cite them where appropriate—for example, stories about how Steve Jobs came up with his ideas and developed his products.

The Story Structure

To construct business stories, you will find several variations on the “Hero’s Journey” first identified by Joseph Campbell. Campbell documented a narrative that is found in stories throughout history. It consists of several documented steps that the hero goes through in a typical narrative. I think that’s a bit too complicated when you are trying to create business stories that need to be short and to the point.

One excellent structure created by The Actor’s Institute Group (TAI Group) (http://theTAIgroup.com) is detailed in an article by Kaihan Krippendorff, innovator and author of “Outthink the Competition.” The article in Fast Company (March of 2012) is called “Using Great Storytelling to Grow Your Business.”

In the article, Krippendorff identifies what the TAI Group calls a story spine as shown in Figure 3.1, which lays out a useful structure to tell a business story:

  1. Introduction of the current reality: What is the time, place, and the people in the scene?
  2. Conflict arrives: What problem interrupts the calm scene?
  3. A struggle ensues: What do the characters do to resolve the problem?
  4. The conflict is resolved: How is it resolved?
  5. A new reality exists: How have the characters changed as a result of the action?
    FIGURE 3.1

    FIGURE 3.1. Story spine.

It’s important to follow each step in sequence. It takes you from the opening of the story which shows the status quo to the end where a new reality is now in place. It’s very important to have a structure like this to follow when constructing a story. It helps you identify the actions that must take place to move the story along.

One of the big mistakes that people make when creating stories is that they don’t show action. It’s not enough to show a sequence of details. You have to show that each of the steps leads to changes and problems the hero must solve. The excitement in the story is watching what decisions the hero makes and whether they help him reach his goal or not.

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