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Mastering the Art of Strategic Storytelling

The great Russian Novelist Leo Tolstoy defined art as “an infection” in his 1897 book What is Art? Good art, he explained, infects the audience with the storyteller’s emotions and ideas; the message finds its way into the reader’s mind through the vessel of a story, bypassing their skepticism and doubts. The more skilled the artist, the stronger the infection becomes. Tolstoy knew nothing about how storytelling worked at a neuroscientific level, but as we sit here over one hundred years after his death, we have evidence that emotional stories spike the “empathy chemical” known as oxytocin in our blood. Stories alter our mental state by literally changing our brain chemistry. Given this evidence, it’s no surprise that 92 percent of consumers want brands to engage them with storytelling. But the issue isn’t convincing brands to tell stories; it’s convincing them to tell ones that are lucid and poignant.

As much as we’d all like the blueprint to craft a Broadway-esque narrative for our brand, it doesn’t exist. But with research, practice, and a little luck comes the ability to tap into our own unique storytelling capabilities.

In his book All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin asserts that in order for a narrative to resonate, it must be framed around an audience’s worldview. In other words, the marketer tells a story about what the consumer notices. We filter reality through the lens of what we want to see. Great storytellers mirror reality in such a way that it blends people’s expectations with the mission of a brand to the point where they are indistinguishable. In this sense, the most crucial aspect of storytelling is an intimate understanding of the audience’s worldview – their hopes, fears, and dreams. If you can’t pinpoint what these are for your audience, chances are you’re putting the cart in front of the horse. Get out of your own head and into the audience’s.

Maybe it’s clear that your audience is fed up with the current establishment, lack of innovation, etc. There is great power to be had by stirring up the waters of tradition to catch new fish. By constructing a narrative in which you are positioned as a dark horse, you can reap the benefits of our age-old desire to watch the underdog disrupt the pecking order. Remember when Dollar Shave Club launched their comedic assault against big-business grooming companies? They spotted a gap in the industry then crafted a narrative for their audience that was both beneficial and fun to share.

A good story works as social currency: when we pass something along that’s valuable or emotional, it makes us look good. So why not invest in a narrative that’s worth sharing instead of pushing facts and figures? Using stories to shape perceptions is nothing to feel guilty about. Tolstoy told stories to sell his ideologies in the 1800s; Nike tells stories today to sell sneakers.

Know your audience. Be controversial. Stir up emotions. Tell a story.

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