Corporate storytelling: an essential guide
What is corporate storytelling?
Everybody craves for “some storytelling” nowadays. But a compelling business narrative isn’t about “telling stories” alone. And it’s not as easy as 1-2-3.
Corporate storytelling is about presenting your brand identity and values to a wider public with the help of narrative techniques. It’s a communication strategy that aims at engaging your audience by luring spectators (or readers) to an imaginative universe that delivers information through stories.
But what’s so special about corporate storytelling?
How does it work? Why does it work?
Let’s take a step back.
The power of stories
Everyone loves stories. It’s a fact. Stories have been a staple of human experience and expression since the dawn of time. People created and shared stories well before the invention of writing systems: just think about the engravings in ancient caves or myths passed down through generations.
Storytelling satisfies our need for entertainment. But the power of narration goes well beyond that. Chronicles, parables, epic poems: through stories, people share knowledge, lessons learned, values and culture.
Indeed, you can use different strategies to achieve such a goal.
But storytelling is much more engaging than a class or a handout.
When we listen to stories, empathy and identification come into play. This helps us process experiences and concepts at a deeper level. And look at situations from a different angle.
By comparing the narrative with our own experiences, we can envision different scenarios, solutions and strategies. We can meditate on our values and put our opinions and beliefs to the test. And all of that within the “safe space” of the narrative, where trials and errors leave no permanent trace.
Also: when we read novels and fables, our brain reacts in surprising ways. Using imaging techniques, researchers found that sensory language and motion-based words activates brain areas which are associated with the processing of:ù
- Language, such as the Broca area or Wernicke’s area
- Sensory stimuli, such as the piriform cortex for the sense of smell.
They also found that descriptions of social interactions activate a similar process.
Basically, storytelling is one of the most effective simulations of reality – and it naturally triggers engagement in the audience.
Why use storytelling for marketing?
With narration being such a powerful tool, more and more companies are using it to showcase their heritage and identity in a fresh, relaxed and intimate way.
Because corporate storytelling isn’t a call-to-action.
Or rather: it’s a highly sophisticated call-to-action that doesn’t aim at “selling more products” – even though extra sales are a nice short-term bonus. The objective of corporate storytelling is “selling the brand” – its history, milestones, values and promises – to customers and stakeholders at large.
An effective business narrative:
- Enhances brand perception across media;
- Triggers trust and engagement in the audience;
- Fosters customer loyalty.
The formula of an engaging narrative
Each story can be told in different ways and from different angles.
That’s why effective corporate storytelling narratives are always distilled based on the brand’s tone of voice and market.
Individual elements vary, for your story shall be consistent with your brand identity, the overall communication strategy, and your specific scenario (products, industry, target). Conversely, the formula stays the same.
Effective stories are:
- Simple. Think of fables, which revel around a single situation to convey one key message (the moral). Fables also feature an agile structure, that fosters understanding and the audience’s attention.
- Complete. Whether it’s a 20-second video or a 2000-word article, your story needs a logical structure: beginning, middle and end.
- Moving. Effective narratives combine information and emotion. Your story could convey happiness, relief, joy, optimism… How would you like your clients and prospects to feel while listening to it? And how should they feel afterwards?
- Genuine. Your business stories shall reflect and highlight your corporate values as well as the value your clients gets from using your products or service. Corporate storytelling is a promise – and you’ll have to keep your word.
- Relevant. If your narrative doesn’t resonate with your audience, it won’t cut through the noise. Consider: how does your story relate to your ideal client?
An effective narrative also needs:
- Context: a time, place or situation.
- Characters: vivid characterisation fosters identification.
- Action: if nothing happens, there’s no story.
Get inspired by classic story structures: hero VS antagonist; the damsel in distress; problem/complication/solution; … There’s a lot you can achieve just by tweaking those a bit.
Corporate storytelling: the hero
As mentioned above, every story needs strong actors. And the hero is the quintessential character.
In classic literature, the hero epitomises positive traits. Heroes are brave and generous. They overcome challenges with perseverance, willpower… and a pinch of luck. Their journey is dotted with obstacles and enemies, but they can also count on the help of friends and good-hearted people.
Moreover, heroes are easy characters to empathise with. All in all, who wouldn’t love to be a hero? Who wouldn’t love to grasp a happy ending against all odds?
Heroes bring stories to life. So: who should get the honour of impersonating the hero in corporate storytelling? The brand, a product or the customer?
Long story short: there’s no “right answer” to this dilemma. In the media, you can find examples of successful business storytelling for each scenario.
At times, the brand and the customer coexist in the narrative. In such cases, the brand (or the product) often appears as the sidekick: the (magic-powered) helper that supports the hero.
Some companies frown at this scenario: how could it possibly be OK not to be in the spotlight?
This video from the Unlimited campaign by Western Sydney University (2015) is unequivocal: if the narrative works, the sidekick takes center stage too.
The video tells the story of Deng Thiak Adut – from his early years to his present-day commitment as a defence lawyer championing the cause of Sudanese refugees. The university is only mentioned in the credits of the film – but makes a silent appearance as the turning point of the narrative. It’s the “magic sidekicks” that supports the hero in his pivotal moment.
Is the message effective? You bet.
Through the story of Deng Thiak Adut, the Western Sydney University shares its values and commitment – and also makes a promise to future students.
In corporate storytelling there’s no “perfect formula”.
If your narrative triggers emotions and engagement, it’s a keeper.
Corporate storytelling is a powerful tool. It taps on the mechanisms of narrative techniques to enhance corporate communications and support a company’s brand identity.
A good story can hide anywhere. It could be the eventful adventure of a client that finds his/her happy ending with your help. Or the tale of your heritage-fuelled family business. And more. Your business can be the hero, the sidekick or a name in the credits of your narrative.
Whatever the formula, your story has to hold value for your ideal client.
Because the story is meant just for him.
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