Add Storytelling To Your Corporate Thought Leadership Mix

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Every day, Americans are inundated with a dizzying amount of information. Google processes more than 40,000 searches every second, and the average American sends and receives almost 100 text messages a day -- and even more emails.

But as this kind of short-burst data becomes increasingly available, our longing to linger for a moment -- to experience a positive emotional connection -- grows stronger. It’s one of the reasons why storytelling is gaining new traction, especially in the corporate sector where there is a growing need to communicate with key audiences.

As a partner and lead strategist at a public relations firm, I have seen firsthand how effective storytelling can grow a brand. We have developed videos that show the plight of refugees, books that tell the stories of cutting-edge technology startups, podcasts that highlight senior adults doing extraordinary things and articles that feature the remarkable resilience of human trafficking victims.

Storytelling is not a new idea. Stories are as old as humankind -- from the rock art of the cavemen to the bards who first recited Beowulf. Our brains are, in fact, wired for storytelling. Science has shown that our brains become more active when we tell stories. But today, stories are more valuable than ever.

Our love of stories is part of the reason social media has exploded at such a rapid pace. More than two-thirds of Americans are on Facebook, over one-third are on Instagram, and a third of Americans watch YouTube at least once a day. Through platforms like these, we share much-needed messages of hope, inspiration, laughter and more.

Or take the enormous popularity of podcasts, essentially long-form audio versions of storytelling. Over half a million are available on Apple now. Over 3,000 TED Talks have been filmed since 2006, and the first six got more than a million views in a matter of months. These can serve as examples of the impact that inspiring stories can have on people across the country.

Nonprofits have been using stories for years to inspire and motivate potential donors. In the era before Hulu and DVRs, most of America was familiar with long-form commercials featuring the heartbreaking faces of children around the world we could sponsor for less than a dollar a day. And Sarah McLachlan’s famous 2007 ASPCA commercial, which featured images of abused cats and dogs, managed to raise $30 million in the first two years of its release.

It’s no surprise then, that the marketing departments of companies are now turning to storytelling as a way to build their brands and to effectively and meaningfully share the work they are doing. Studies in cognitive psychology have found that messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than facts. And while the average person consumes more than 100,000 words each day, 92% of consumers say they would prefer to get those words in the form of a story.

But storytelling goes beyond marketing. While it can breathe life into a brand, it can also inspire, inform and move people to action, much more than data alone can. Why? Because stories unite an idea with an emotion. A 2015 neurological study found that dramatic narratives have a significant effect on charitable giving. And a 2013 study found that storytelling helped improve medical students' care of dementia patients.

Companies can use storytelling to engage audiences, both internal and external, whether through controlled platforms like a company’s social media, website or blog, or through earned media, like op-eds or interviews. Often, the two intersect. When a story is especially powerful, its influence can resonate beyond its initial platform and should be used in multiple ways.

In today’s increasingly purpose-driven society, the companies that are finding the most success in developing deep customer engagement are the ones with missions that extend beyond simply selling products. Take Patagonia, for example. When Patagonia announced that it would only make its co-branded vests for "mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet," the story garnered massive media coverage. This announcement coincided neatly with the release of the company’s new film, Artifishal, a documentary about the fight to save wild salmon. By bringing its environmental mission into the spotlight in an innovative way and using a storytelling film, Patagonia ensured the greatest impact. Instead of using the "power vest" media coverage to announce the opening of a new store or the release of a new product, it used it to move people to action on an issue that mattered to them.

Storytelling like this is an effective way to engage consumer trust. Increasingly, people want to hear from corporate leaders and are trusting them to do what is right. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, people’s trust in business is higher than trust in government or media. And 76% believe that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it.

One of the reasons stories are becoming such a valuable corporate tool is that not only is the supply unlimited, but people also never exhaust their eagerness for more. Stories can expand a company’s credibility just as powerfully as research studies or strategic partnerships, if not more so. They are a powerful way not only of building brands and thought leadership but also of enacting real, meaningful change.