Aristotle opened the flood-gates when he started to analyse storytelling. His beginning, middle and end theory was just the start of us trying to understand why stories are so powerful and why they resonate with us so deeply.
Since Aristotle’s days, we have used neuroscience, psychology, sociology and anthropology disciplines amongst others, to explore how and why humans process and understand the world through stories.
Multiple studies have been published to examine this subject on a scientific level. It has been concluded that the human brain does not distinguish between reading or hearing a story and experiencing it in real life. In both cases, the same neurological pathways are activated.
There can be little doubt that stories generate a human response; a sense of belonging, a degree of understanding, empathy or indeed action. We are quite simply wired that way.
Stories are patterns that connect cause and effect. This helps us to make sense of the world around us.
My own industry is built on its ability to structure and tell stories. But what makes a good one?
School children are taught about the arc of a story, consisting of rising action and conflict, which is presented fluently to lead to a conclusion. The literary arts speak of five important characteristics found in a compelling story: setting, plot, character, conflict and resolution.
In corporate storytelling, the same is true. Good stories are like a proven recipe, in that they require the right balance of ingredients to draw us in.
And yet, so many companies still get the ingredients and the composition wrong or opt for poor substitutions. So what should be in the mix?
- Great corporate stories are contextualised through a setting, be it an industry, a macro context or a market dynamic.
- This anchors the company’s vision or mission (i.e. plot) in what it wishes to achieve or change in this industry or market context. The best examples of corporate storytelling respond clearly and simply to an identified customer need or a gap in the market.
- Literary conflict can be found in the company’s product or service offering; or more precisely why said commercial proposition is better than the competitions’ or increasingly why it will ‘disrupt’ a status quo.
- Characterisation can be found in the leadership and their team who convince us that they are more than capable of delivering on the vision and achieving greatness.
- Finally, and critically, the resolution or denouement is in the corporate world seen in the way an organisation evidences its progress against stated objectives. This might be financial or operational performance, recruitment, market share or other critical success factors which prove the company is on track.
Staying true to this recipe creates balance and structure to a corporate narrative and will ultimately take stakeholders with you. But it is simply raw material. To continue the analogy, this creates the cake mixture, but not how it is shaped or presented.
Practices are moving apace. Generational context, technology and basic psychology have and are changing how we, as individuals, accumulate knowledge or stay up-to-date. They are changing how we access and assess stories, just as much as what we are interested in. This should influence format and composition – how the story is told.
A clear majority of us – somewhere between 60 – 70% - are visual learners. The rise of video formats and infographics speaks to this, although not all companies pull it off well.
Equally, we are increasingly mobile and time poor, seeking to multi-task while consuming content. This can be seen in the rise of audio content, voice assistants and podcasting.
For corporate communications professionals standing still is no longer an option. We must draw from other disciplines and industries to become more targeted and scientific. We must understand behavioural and data science more.
Much of the corporate communications industry is having to reinvent itself along these lines, embracing new more visual formats, testing messaging for resonance and using data and analytics to inform when and where the tiles of the story mosaic might appear.
So, presentation and tonality is changing, but one factor remains constant. Stories are most impactful when the win hearts as well as minds. Evidence and data might tell you what is happening. It gives you a rational case. But a well-structured story also tells you why it’s important and should stir an emotional connection. ‘Make me care’ should be the mantra we all remember.
And yet, in corporate communications we consistently fall into the trap of assuming that capability and clout is demonstrated through sophisticated language and complex propositions. This leads us to rely all too heavily on jargon and industry speak, assuming that this shows insight and will resonate with business audiences. As corporate communications practitioners what we should remember is that, even in a business context, audiences are human too.
A simple, relatable story is always more memorable than a complex one.