When I’m engaged by a client on a brand strategy project, we always begin by looking inward. Why was this company started in the first place? What part of our business really makes our heart sing? What is it, beyond money, that gets us excited – our passion?

Next, we dig to discover where this passion intersects with the needs and desires of our customers. These points of intersection become the foundation of our brand.

The problem is, how do you take these points and communicate them? Exactly 0 people respond to a list of anything. Name the ten commandments – you get my point.

Storytelling is as old as humanity. But as the noise to signal ratio of modern society amplifies, we’re rediscovering its value as a business tool.

I met Jordan Bower at a recent Social Media Camp conference in Victoria (a conference 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 a keynote speaker who keeps you on the edge of your seat.

There’s no doubt in my mind Jordan’s insights are going to make my brand strategy practice stronger. I hope this interview with him helps spark ideas for your business as well.

The Jordan Bower Interview

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

I suppose I am very 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?

Accordingly, we can think of this explosion of content as a kind of buffet of the psyche. 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 in 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 is natural that any practice that restores a grounding balance will become popular.

In other words, it is becoming necessary for every digital native to have a complementary practice that acts like a flotation device against the deluge. In the next few 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 that 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 drive for attention has led most brand storytellers to take a backwards approach to storytelling: i.e. I want attention, what story do I tell? This is the approach most brands are still taking today. A far better and more meaningful approach is to reverse the question: i.e. I have a compelling story, how do I spread the word? 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.

You say social media allows us to portray ourselves as one dimensional, idealized beings. There are huge dangers to individuals and society in this, no?

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 looked 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 basically 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 of 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 for the immense amount of pain that is resulting from our current way of being.

Jordan, you know my passion is building futureproof brands. What are the implications inherent in the rise of storytelling for brands trying to futureproof 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 centered 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 your 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.

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 mold and fester and ripen and cure, and then steadily become part of who we are. Instead of trying to tell a hundred great stories in a year, start with just one. Start it, spend six months or more obsessing over it and not knowing where it will go, and have the persistence to reach the conclusion.

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, and trust the deepest storytelling insight: that 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.

This story first ran on Linkedin June 5, 2015