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Advertising as Storytelling

StorytellersSo here we are, deep into the information age, awash with data, rich in metrics and able to present the marketplace with a truly impressive array of facts and figures to compel and persuade people to behave in a certain way. But here’s the thing: all these sets of data are just . . .  numbers.  And while numbers are inarguably valuable in measuring results or describing the abstract in a tangible way, they come up way short in what matters most in marketing, advertising and public relations: the art of storytelling.

People are hardwired to respond to stories. It’s part of our DNA. For thousands of years we relied on oral storytelling to not only pass on history and culture, but also the information we needed to survive. Knowing not to eat a certain mushroom was good information to have, passed on through the traditions of storytelling. Fast forward a few millennia to a world now swimming in algorithms. In the new age of reason we’ve become fascinated by digits. Statistics are everywhere, telling us what and how much to eat, what car to drive, where to invest our money, when to travel, even who we should date. But deep down, we’re still the Cro-Magnon, sitting around the campfire fascinated not by how many saber toothed tigers Zog killed, but his harrowing story about bagging the last one.

The point here is that if you want to really connect with your target audience tell them a story, don’t deluge them with data. Nobody ever picked up a banner and marched off to war because of a spreadsheet. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, put it this way:

“The most powerful thing you can hear, and the only thing that ever persuades any of us in our own lives, is when you meet somebody whose story contradicts the thing you think you know.”

Bingo. Now read this little tidbit by Annette Simons, who wrote The Story Factor:

“We don’t need more information. We need to know what it means. We need a story that explains what it means and makes us feel like we fit in there somewhere.”

Yes. And that doesn’t mean information is meaningless, it just means that information described by numbers is the wrong container for a persuasive message. The right container is one that is clearly transmitted, readily received, and can be easily passed along. Like a good story.

Which brings us to advertising and persuasive communications. As an advertiser, your challenge is to tell a story that people will remember and act on. That’s advertising in a nutshell. So how do you make your advertising a good story? To help you answer that question I’m going to borrow (and paraphrase to apply to the art of advertising) Andy Goodman’s 10 Immutable Laws of Storytelling from his book Storytelling as Best Practice.

Stories are about people

Whatever product or service you’re selling, ultimately it affects real people in some real way. Use the precious time you’ve invested in to spend with your target audience to describe this in a real way.

The people in your story have to want something

And if you understand your target audience and what problems they’re trying to solve the two will align. The exposition part of your story is letting them know you understand what they want. The payoff is letting them know how you can deliver what they want.

Stories need to be fixed in time and space

Put another way: ground your message in the here and now. People naturally want to know the where and when of a story; only then will they be ready to follow you into the deeper meaning of your message.

Let your characters speak for themselves

This is why testimonials and dialogue are such powerful and popular devices in advertising.

Audiences bore easily

This has always been true, but now in the digital age, with so much information available at warp speed, you must get their attention immediately and tell them quickly what you can do for them. Advertising in any age has always been, by its nature, a short story format. In this Age of Too Much Information consider it a short, short story.

Stories speak the audience’s language

If you know your target audience you know what vernacular, colloquialisms and slang you can use to establish common ground, but be careful here. Using a word or phrase that’s become passé or overused can quickly reveal you as an imposter, stripping away your credibility.

Stories stir up emotions

Your brand promise is predicated on the experience you provide your customers and the emotion that experience evokes. The best advertising message reflects that emotion, making your audience feel something, not just think about something. This is something that numbers just can’t do.

Stories don’t tell, they show

One of the most iconic ads of all time is Apple’s “1984” TV commercial which introduced the Macintosh computer. If you’ve never seen this spot, Google it. There are a lot of great examples of advertising that “show, don’t tell.” This is one of the greatest.

Stories have at least one moment of truth

In advertising, this is the moment when you make a connection with your audience because they “get it.” It’s the payoff moment when they understand what it is you can do for them and how they can connect with you to get it. And it is this moment that requires the truth because it’s the moment when you make your audience a promise that you’d better be able to keep.

Stories have clear meaning

How many times have you seen a commercial that you remembered because it entertained you, but have no idea what product or service they were pitching? There’s nothing wrong with making your advertising entertaining as long as your meaning and message are clear. At the end of it all, if your audience can’t answer the question, “what were they selling and why would I want it?” it really won’t matter if you followed all the other rules.


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