Everybody loves a good story. Stories can fill us with joy, bring us to tears, or stimulate any emotion in between. They have a magical ability to grab and hold our attention in a way that almost no other form of communication can, making them ideal for marketers who want to reach distracted consumers and grow their sales. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, about the irresistible pull of storytelling and the role it plays in building brands.
RL: There seems to be a movement in business to have a good brand story to tell—something that resonates on an emotional level with consumers. What are some ways that a business can harness the power of stories to grow their brand or sell their products?
JG: Story is considered a potent tool in business communication because it's special in the way that it draws human attention. If you just tell me your business makes really great paper clips, I don't care. It's just data. But if you wrap your product up in a compelling narrative—an emotionally engrossing story—then you have me. A story not only gives me information that you guys make good paper clips, but it helps me feel an emotional connection with you and what you're doing that's really quite powerful. Coca-Cola is a perfect example. What sets them apart isn't the beverage so much, but the kinds of stories they tell about their products and the kind of bond they've been able to forge with consumers over roughly a century.
RL: You've said that television commercials are half-minute short stories. What did you mean by that?
JG: A commercial rarely just says that a laundry detergent works well; it shows that it does through a story about an overworked mom, rascally kids, and a laundry room triumph. Jewelry stores get men to buy sparkly little rocks by screening stories in which besotted suitors pinpoint the exact price of a woman's love: two months' salary. Some ad campaigns are designed around recurring characters in multipart stories. Story touches nearly every aspect of our lives.
RL: Stories rely heavily on conflict to involve the reader. Even case studies in business follow a typical problem/solution structure. Why?
JG: Stories are almost always about people with problems. The people want something badly, but big obstacles [stand in the way]. It is a basic storytelling technique to establish and forge this really strong, personal connection between consumers and the brand. Stories tend to fixate on trouble. Without a knotty problem, you don't have a story.
RL: Stories can help brands distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. Do you have an example of a brand story that rises above the fray?
JG: This Chipotle ad is a very good example. You can tell people all day about the power of story. You can describe the psychological studies that prove it. But if you have them watch this story, they can see for themselves—feel for themselves—why story is such an incredibly powerful tool for riveting attention, rousing emotion, changing behavior, and driving home a business's message.
JG: Tell stories that tap into a common morality. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values.
RL: How can small business owners become better storytellers?
JG: I'd tell them to steer clear of business books and look up creative writing textbooks instead, like The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. There are a few basic principles to learn. One is to have a problem, to have trouble in your story. If there's no problem, people just aren't interested. The second thing I would stress is that by nature, story is a vehicle for a message. So it's not weird or artificial to graft your business message onto your business story. Stories are so much better at carrying a message and convincing people of things than just a straight informational presentation. There's a lot of research that shows how much better people remember things in story form—how much more convinced they are when people are given information in a story—rather than from a list of bullet points.
RL: Final thoughts?
JG: I was in Warsaw at this little place called the Radio Café that's popular with Western travelers. On the back page of the menu, there's a whole story in English about the Radio Café and the building it's in and the role it played transmitting radio signals during the Polish resistance of World War II. And suddenly—instead of just having Polish dumplings at this restaurant, I felt deeply, emotionally connected to this place. I had read up on Warsaw and I had all these associations in my mind. Their little story connected me to that big story and made me feel a little more connected to that place in a way that would have brought me back, in a way that would have me recommend it to my friends. Just by intuition, they knew it was important to tell their story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.