Want better brand strategy? Tune up your storytelling skill.

When a client engages me on a brand storytelling project, we always begin by looking inward.  Why did they launch the company in the first place? What is it, beyond money, that excites them? What adventures led to what insights led to what product differentiators?

Next, we dig to discover where their passion intersects with the needs and desires of their customers. Together, the inside out / outside in perspectives become the foundation of the brand.

And the storytelling? It’s simply the best way in the world to get people to remember the great stuff we’re developing.

Brand storytelling as a business tool

Storytelling is as old as humanity. But as modern society’s noise to signal ratio amplifies, we’re rediscovering brand storytelling’s value as a business tool.

I met Jordan Bower at a  Social Media Camp conference in Victoria (an event worth checking out if you’re tired of the standard overhyped, overpriced conferences that deliver more swag than insight). He’s a digital storyteller and keynote speaker who keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Jordan’s insights made my brand storytelling and strategy practice stronger. I hope this interview with him helps spark ideas for your business as well.

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The Jordan Bower Interview

Jordan, as a brand storyteller, what’s your thinking on the explosion of content online? Are we going to drown in stories?

I suppose I’m old school: when I think about stories, I share a perspective from Ancient Greece, which holds that stories are windows to the soul. In our time, science is proving this same point (albeit using much different language). Recent studies show that when an audience hears or reads the story of a character taking a particular action, the audience experiences brain activity in the same region as if they were taking that action themselves. So what we know is that stories have the power to transport us – to other times, to other places, and into other people’s minds.

The explosion of content is like a buffet for our psyche. How do we choose what to dine on? Each time we open our browser, we are presented with the opportunity to dine upon any type of human experience. How do we choose? Generally, our choices are based upon what we are experiencing at the moment.

Though this may sound like yoga language, the truth is that the explosion of yoga, mindfulness and other similar practices in the West are inextricably linked to the explosion in digital technology. Because the experience of jumping from dish to dish – sampling something out of context, gorging ourselves on sweets – is fundamentally dislocating, it’s natural that any practice that restores a grounding balance will become popular.

In other words, it’s becoming necessary for every digital native to have a complementary practice that acts as a flotation device against the deluge. In the coming years, we will continue to see how stories can function as that flotation device.

Do people still have the patience for stories? Or is the word ‘stories’ an old-school term that needs to be refitted for modern purposes?

I think the opposite is true. Once, the word ‘story’ referred to fairy tales and mythology: story structures were educational, culturally reinforced, or suggested something about the underlying architecture of what it meant to be human. However, starting with the explosion of commercially driven media in the last quarter of the 20th century, a new prestige came to the people who attracted the most attention – and this solitary metric, attention, translated almost directly into social capital. This is the seed of modern social media.

Most brand storytellers start with “I want attention, what story do I tell?” A far better approach is to ask “I have a compelling story. How do I tell it?”

The trouble is that most of what we as audiences find compelling is vulnerable, emotionally complex and full of conflict – which is exactly what most brands are afraid to talk about.

(Speaking of building brands with complexity, vulnerability and soul, check out this story to see how its done.)

You say social media allows us to portray ourselves as one dimensional, idealized beings. Aren’t there huge dangers to individuals and society in this?

What gets shared most on social media? Pictures and videos – which are moving pictures. Ultimately, social media is a tremendous marketplace of diverse imagery. As most social media professionals have learned by now, words on white backgrounds don’t engage as effectively as pictures. So by virtue of the medium, we have all become visual communicators.

The trouble with visual communication is this important idea called context. Images are very rarely meaningful out of context: an image can show you what something looks like, but never what it means. For something to have meaning, it must have a relationship with our own emotions. But because we’re all exposed to so many images so quickly, it’s very difficult to sit with any given image and develop a meaningful perspective. We’re forced to absorb and react, instead of process and feel.

Social media is like force-feeding ourselves from that aforementioned buffet of pictures. And the result is that most of us have a bulging gut of unexpressed emotions that are dying to be released. As human beings, there tend to be two ways to deal with unexpressed emotions: the hard way, which is to go deep inside ourselves and confront everything that’s there, one by one. Or the harder way, which is to pretend that everything is fine and escape through addiction.

I believe that addiction is anything we use to manage pain. Spend an hour walking around your town, and you’ll get a sense of the immense amount of pain that results from our current way of being.

Jordan, you know my passion is building future proof brands. What are the implications inherent in the rise of storytelling for brands trying to future proof themselves?

It has become best practice to take a data-driven approach to understanding audiences. While I think that data is a very valuable tool for listening to the actions of your audience, I believe that interpretation needs to be centred on our hearts. If it’s the case that the online world acts as a balm against deeply seeded inner trauma – and I am wagering my life that this is true – then what your audience is needing most is the experience of connection. Accordingly, the only way to connect to your audience is for you, your co-workers and brand to be connected to the deepest core of yourself.

Data is a valuable tool for listening to the actions of your audience. But we need to interpret the data using our hearts.

We are already seeing that the fastest growing, most compelling brands have taken an advisory role in their relationship to their audiences. Brands like Google and Apple have become educators, telling their followers a compelling story about the future that weaves together the value of their product or service. We will see more of this in the coming years.

In a world of endless change, we need endless teachers and storytellers – to contextualize what we’re learning and to help us apply new tools to old problems. If your brand wants to be relevant in five years, start now by teaching your audience what they can learn about themselves by becoming a part of your story. Genuine advice and guidance will reap genuine results.

(It’s time to learn how to structure your brand story properly, to include your audience. Here’s how.)

Any final words of advice for brand stewards trying to find their way in this chaotic, turbulent world?

Let storytelling be really hard. Remember that really good stories get lodged in people’s minds, where they ripen and cure. Start your story, spend six months or more obsessing over it and not knowing where it will go, and have the persistence to reach a conclusion. Doing this raises the odds you’ll tell a story that becomes a part of who we all are.

And don’t worry about ‘grinding out story content’. Instead of trying to tell a hundred great stories in a year, start with just one.

By definition, creativity means that whatever is being created is something entirely new. Resist the urge to rip off what other people are doing. Trust the deepest storytelling insight: what you are experiencing while telling the story is intimately related to what the audience is feeling as they are experiencing it. Get in touch with your emotions, so you can understand authenticity and translate it into meaning. The process of storytelling is the story.

Do you want to learn more about the tools of brand building? Here are three posts to read next: 

This story was originally published in 2015, but updated to make it fresh and relevant for you in 2021.

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