Why Great Stories Make Great Content and How to Use Them [Part I]

12 June
By Hugh McBride
Stories make for powerful content. No question.
In this two-part blog we’re going to dive deep into storytelling: why it's so valuable and actionable steps you can take to use stories to enhance your brand and build your client base.

Content is Everywhere

In 2018 the Content Marketing Institute found that 92% of surveyed B2B companies were using content marketing.
All of us, it seems, have become writers, producers, directors and publishers of content.
And no wonder. We can reach anyone anywhere at any time.
It could be among the single greatest benefits of living in this Internet age.
The result, one might think, would be the Internet equivalent of a public pool crammed with kids on a hot summer day.
… a cacophony of competitors clamoring to be heard.
But it’s not actually like that, is it?
For one thing, no one organization has precisely the same audience as another.
And for another, there’s the matter of quality. There may be mountains of content, but not all of it is good let alone great. Yet, high quality content is what everyone is searching for and, by no coincidence, that’s mostly what Google serves up. Its top-ranked articles are, generally speaking, clear, engaging, concise, relevant and authoritative.
Great content rises to the top and sets people and organizations apart.

Your Goal? Telling a True Story Well

And so firms like yours pour resources into publishing, not just any content, but great content that’s more likely to be read, curated, shared, retweeted and reposted: ultimately, more likely to drive profitable customer action.
Just what constitutes or defines high quality content is the subject of a future blog. But strong storytelling is key. Content marketing guru Ann Handley calls this, “Telling a true story well.”
Storytelling is the presentation of facts in narrative form. Stories breathe life and meaning – critically, they infuse emotion (as distinct from sensationalism) – into otherwise lifeless facts and figures. Stories make for better (much better) content.

Let’s Define Our Terms. What Is Storytelling?

Let’s take an example.
You could simply relate the facts:
TOMS Shoes sells affordable shoes online. For every pair sold, the company gives a pair to someone in need.
Alternatively, a compelling story:
“While traveling through Argentina in 2006, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie saw the hardships faced by children without shoes. This inspired him to create a for-profit business with giving at its core. The idea? For every pair of shoes the company sold, a new pair would be given to a child in need. And with that, TOMS—short for Tomorrow’s Shoes—was born.”
Readers need the facts, of course. But they also need all the flavours and textures that bring those facts to life. Contrast fine dining with intravenous feeding. Both will sustain you, but no one would choose the second over the first.
To really understand the importance of storytelling, however, you need to explore how decisions are made.

Why are Stories So Incredibly Important?

All of us believe we make rational decisions much, or most, of the time. You likely believe you do. So do your clients. If you’re a management consultant or accountant, you’re especially likely to believe this because you’ve been so exquisitely trained in, and have a strong aptitude for, analytical reasoning.
Further, you may believe that your customers choose to work with your firm for good, sound, rational reasons. But it’s not true, at least, not completely. The decision was already made subconsciously; drawing on emotional intelligence. A rational explanation was furnished after the fact.
A fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review in 2015 had this to say on the subject of unconscious emotional decisions: “… 95% of our purchase decisions take place unconsciously – but why, then, are we not able to look back through our decision history, and find countless examples of emotional decisions? Because our conscious mind will always make up reasons to justify our unconscious decisions.”
The truth is that people buy on emotion and justify with fact. That’s how the world works.
The HBR article goes on to swiftly dismiss the notion that our decisions are, therefore, irrational.
Our unconscious decisions, in point of fact, “… follow a logic of their own. They are based on a deeply empirical mental processing system that is capable of effortlessly processing millions of bits of data without getting overwhelmed. Our conscious mind, on the other hand, has a strict bottleneck, because it can process three or four new pieces of information at a time at a time due to the limitations of our working memory.”
And, so, at the same time as professional firms produce thought leadership and blogs that withstand – and must – the scrutiny of the rational mind, you need to give equal importance to writing for the subconscious mind of readers. You must address readers’ fears, hopes, aspirations and yearnings. They may not be aware of just how much these emotions drive their decisions. But you must take pains, as content creators, to dialogue with that side of them.
That’s where storytelling comes in.
Stories are key to content success.

The Cave Person in All of Us

From an evolutionary standpoint we are all still hunter-gatherers sitting around a fire. And what are we doing? Telling stories!
Stories are the vital means by which we recognize the thoughts, feelings and experiences we have in common. “Oh, she had that experience? So did I.” They speak to an innate deep-seated primordial fear that we are alone. In stories, we recognize ourselves in one another, see that we are not alone, that much of our experience of the world is shared, come closer, and, through relationship and connection, become larger versions of ourselves.
Stories also evoke the emotional states that are constantly moving and shifting within us. They affirm the emotional side of our natures that is so often hidden from view, even from ourselves, and, yet, persistently, relentlessly guides and informs our actions.
Moreover, beyond the ebb and flow of our positive and negative experiences, stories affirm and uphold the witness in all of us, that which stands apart, at any given moment in time, from our emotional states, our experiences and even our personalities. This is the metacognitive part of us. “There is anger here” versus “I am angry”. It is the observer in us that is key to living life responsibly.
As content creators and publishers you must use stories to breathe life into your brands. You must use them so that your firm can be seen in three dimensions and not just two.
In Part II of this blog (coming very soon) we will continue with a close look at what sets great stories apart.