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Where Most Brand Storytelling Fails - And How to Fix It

Executive Summary

Brand storytelling isn't a new concept. However, it is a challenging one. Brands continue to struggle with connecting to audiences on an emotional level.

  • To fill gaps in business, you have to build a bridge to your audience with attention, influence, and transformation.
  • Most brand storytelling fails when it appeals only to the rational side of individuals. Leaning on features, numbers, and facts tend to point away from the heart and towards the head.
  • Some brands will choose the route most traveled with flashy and easy tactics that garner attention, but not much of anything else.
  • The Steller Storytelling Framework helps brands design a story that puts the consumer in its shoes.

Regardless of the type of gap you face in business, you must master three main elements to have any hope of building a bridge strong enough to get your intended audience—potential customers, key team members, investors, etc.—across the great divide: attention, influence, and transformation.

Pretty straightforward, right? The problem—the tragedy really—is that despite our best efforts and intentions, we are really bad at building bridges.

brand storytelling fail #1: We talk at people instead of engaging with them. 

Consider the salesperson in front of a group of decision makers who launches into her pitch, equipped with a clicker that doubles as a laser pointer. The salesperson feels pretty confident. After all, she spent no fewer than six hours cramming every last feature, benefit, percentage, and decimal point onto the deck of eighty-nine slides for a twenty-minute presentation. I mean, the people in the room won’t be able to read any of it on the screen—it’s too small and cluttered—but that doesn’t matter because the salesperson is planning to read it to them off the screen. Who could possibly say no to that?!

Brand storytelling fail #2: We default to what’s easiest or flashiest…

Think of all the real estate agents’ faces you’ve seen on bus stops or all the pop-up ads you’ve instinctually x-ed out of or the hours of commercials you’ve scrolled past. For a while, back in 2016, when the Star Wars craze was in full swing again, there was a guy who stood outside a hair salon in my neighborhood dressed like Darth Vader and holding a blow dryer as a way to lure people in for a haircut. What does Darth Vader have to do with a hair salon? It’s hard to guess, since the guy always wears a helmet, and yet there he stood.

brand storytelling fail #3: We’ve convinced ourselves that substandard solutions are sufficient.

Let’s consider the bridges we try to build internally—the ones meant to create a healthy company culture. Perhaps you work for a company that is committed to its mission and culture, which is great. The culture is taught via a handbook. And leaders within the company often send out emails or newsletters or speak from podiums using the wording from the mission statement. Maybe it’s printed on mugs. But does anyone feel anything about it? They know the words, but do they feel it in their bones? Does it shape their decisions and create a deep sense of commitment? It could. But, sadly, most companies and leaders have accepted the lie that repeating the mission statement is a sufficient bridge for connecting and motivating teams.

If gaps have emerged in your business or on your path to success that you just can’t seem to close, there’s a good chance the problem starts with the elements you’re using, or not using, to build your bridges. The question is, what works? If none of these tactics get the job done, what does? Is there a way to simultaneously capture attention, influence, and transform audiences? How do you build bridges that last and close the gaps once and for all?

quote from Kindra Hall

The Steller storytelling framework

I can still hear Mrs. Carlson, my third-grade teacher, saying from the front of the room. She was giving us one of the earliest writing assignments I can remember. I later wrote something about a zebra, and allegedly that notebook still exists somewhere. Who could have guessed that my third-grade composition lesson would still be with me today? And Mrs. Carlson was not wrong.

Beginning, middle, and end are the building blocks of any story, and business stories are no different. But there is a more descriptive way of approaching these three literary acts. After all, we’re not in third grade anymore.

From now on, let’s try thinking of them as normal, explosion, and new normal… Let’s take a closer look at each of these three story pieces that make up the Steller storytelling framework.

Normal

To tell a good story, one your audience will care about and invest in, you have to start off strategically by establishing the normal. The way things were before something changed. The normal is where you take a little bit of time to include the key components of a story: introduce the identifiable characters and their emotions. This is also where you include a few details that create a sense of familiarity for the audience, drawing them in. They let down their guards. They put themselves in the characters’ shoes.

Done right, throughout the process of the normal, the audience is saying to themselves, “I recognize that person. Yes, I understand what this is about. Yes, I can see how they would feel that way.” The guy on the plane who left his glasses. A couple falling in love. A young, future American president with charm who had to have that amazing French cologne. We’ll talk more about the normal throughout the next section of the book [Stories that Stick], but for now know that this is the most important part of the story. The normal is where you include the components. The normal is where you give your audience a reason to care. The normal is the part most people leave out, which is why their stories don’t stick.

Explosion 

Admittedly, the word explosion is a little aggressive. It implies blood or injury or fire. That is not necessarily the case in your story, though. The explosion, for our purposes, is simply the happening. It could be a big thing or a small thing, a good thing or a bad thing. Most importantly, it’s the moment things change. Perhaps it is a realization or a decision. It may be an actual event. Whatever the case, the explosion is the point in the story where things were going along as normal and then suddenly they are different. Good different, bad different, doesn’t matter. For now, remember: Normal: Things are how they are. Explosion: Something happens. New Normal: Things are different.

New Normal

The third and final phase is the new normal. This is where you share with your audience what life is like now, after the explosion. You tell them what you know now, why you are wiser or stronger or how you improved (or are still trying to improve) as a result. It could be a moral. It could be when a client lived happily ever after, after using your product or service. It could include a call to action. However it comes together, the new normal is why storytelling works as a strategy to convey a point or enhance a message and not just to entertain. The new normal is what makes a story worth listening to in business.

Excerpted with permission from Stories that Stick by Kindra Hall, copyright Kindra Hall.

Bring It Home

Think about your typical consumer, your target audience. What is their normal? What do they experience in situations where your product or service could help, but isn't currently because they haven't been introduced to it. If your story were a fairy tale, what would cause Sleeping Beauty to wake up, Cinderella to sneak away to the ball, and Jasmine to take that magic carpet ride against her better judgement? Write out how your offering would change your audience's life forever. Practice telling your story and share it with us! ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Kindra Hall author of Stories that Stick

Kindra Hall

Kindra Hall is a keynote speaker and award-winning storyteller. She has been published at Entrepreneur.com and Inc.com, and as a contributing editor to Success magazine. She speaks for and works with brands of all sizes to help them harness the power of storytelling.

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