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If you’re in the online marketing space in any way, shape, or form, you’ve probably heard someone talk about the power of using stories in marketing. (And if you’ve been following me, you’ve definitely heard me talk about the power of storytelling.)
But what does it actually mean to use storytelling when it comes to business facts and not some fictional, fantasy novel?
Buckle up buttercup because this blog post is dedicated to all things story: what it is, why we (humans) gravitate toward it, and how to use it in your own marketing efforts.
What is storytelling?
On the most basic level, storytelling is the act of using words to help a listener or reader imagine an experience or another world. (Thanks, Hubspot.) It usually involves a beginning, a middle, and an end and it definitely includes characters.
Almost every story in existence follows the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey contains a main character (the hero) who encounters a problem that forces them out into the unknown where they meet a guide who helps them face the problem so they can return home victorious.
Okay, great, but…
Why do we even care about stories?
Storytelling is hardwired into our DNA (and that’s not me being dramatic, it’s science). If you want to get really nerdy about it the impact storytelling has on the brain, you can do so here and here or just Google “storytelling and neuroscience.”
Basically, we know that stories work because we’ve studied storytelling and the brain enough to prove that the brain gets excited when it’s listening to a good story.
Just think back to something CRAZY a friend has told you about…
What just popped into your mind? Was it a fact or a story?
I’m willing to bet it was a story…because stories are deeply human. Not only do they evoke feelings within us which we have a lot easier of a time remembering than facts, but they’re also a deeply human habit. The act of passing on stories about events and each other is a core part of our survival and our history.
Stories are also stupid powerful
They are a rallying cry unlike anything else. Think about Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech – the whole speech is a story that had readers imagining a better world, a different world.
Think about The Bible. It doesn’t just say: God created the earth – it recounts what happened on each of the seven days of creation.
And at the core of wildly successful brands? You guessed it, storytelling. Which brings us to the next point…
What good stories and marketing have in common
1 – AN OBVIOUS PROBLEM TO SOLVE
Every good story starts with a problem and that problem demands that the main character makes a decision: go passively about life and let this problem ruin everything or take action and dive into the unknown with the potential to be victorious.
The same goes for marketing. Your ideal client is the hero at the beginning of their journey and when they come across your offer or your business, they’re experiencing a problem, a problem that you are offering a solution to. But taking a step toward fixing their problem requires a step into the unknown.
The takeaway: how can you create stakes around what you offer so your reader can feel the tension between staying where they are and being fine/less than fine or taking the next step and being fulfilled?
2 – A RELATABLE MAIN CHARACTER
The main character is what makes or breaks a good story because if you don’t like the main character, you’re not gonna keep reading the book or watching whatever series.
Good main characters are scared but choose to be brave anyway, they have things they would absolutely never do (strong values), they make mistakes and are too hard on themselves for it, they have moments of extreme self-doubt, and they crave more. They’re the ones seeking to make a change; a change within their world or a change that impacts all of society.
They also have a rich backstory that deepens readers’ connections to the main character because it helps them understand why they are the way they are. (Have you ever watched a movie where there was so little backstory you just couldn’t care about what was happening at all? It sucks.)
While you’re not actually the “hero” of your story according to marketing genius, Donald Miller, you can think of yourself as the main character when it comes to including these main character elements in your marketing.
The takeaway: Have a backstory that contextualizes how you ended up where you are, make your values apparent, and reveal your vulnerabilities so that your audience can relate with you (and on a deeper level, care about the success of your brand).
3 – A KICKASS GUIDE
Along with a relatable main character, almost all good stories have a wise and wonderful guide who has faced the problem that the hero of the story is trying to overcome.
And this is where the StoryBrand framework created by Donald Miller will blow your mind: you’re not the hero, you’re the guide.
(I promise it’s still cool.)
The guide is the character that has been there and done that, having overcome similar challenges the hero is facing, and is a key character because the guide is able to relay their experiences in a way that helps the hero.
(Imagine how bad it would be if Dumbledore was like: “Yeah, I’ve got no ideas how to beat Voldemort. Good luck though.” Not a very reassuring role model.)
The guide is the all-knowing character that everyone respects and turns to for sage advice and is responsible for leading the hero through their journey, but ultimately letting them spread their wings and fly all on their own at the end. In your marketing storyline – your ideal client is the hero, turning to you for your expertise so you can lead them through their challenges and to triumph.
The takeaway: you want to relate to your ideal client by telling them you know how they’re feeling because you’ve been there BUT that you’ve overcome it and you know what life is like on the other side, that’s why you’re qualified to help them.
4 – A DREAMY END GOAL
A good story makes a big deal out of the end goal. Whether that’s overcoming literal evil or getting your parents back together (shoutout to The Parent Trap), the end goal feels plausible but like a big f-ing deal. It’s not so easy that it’s boring, but it’s not so hard that it’s completely impossible – story consumers need something to root for. After all, the end goal is what makes the opening problem compelling.
If there’s no end goal, then there’s only hopelessness. If there’s only the end goal, but no problem, it’s boring. The end goal paired with the problem is what creates the tension that drives the whole story.
Give people a good goal to root for and you’ll form a community.
Just like at Nike. Yeah, they’re selling shoes. But they’re also selling the idea that anyone can accomplish the unbelievable if they just do it. And they do so by showing you the stories of ordinary people who have become extraordinary athletes, implying that their audience could be that too.
The takeaway: show your ideal client what’s on the other side if they take this leap; paint a picture of what their life could look like if they were to succeed.
5 – A TRANSFORMATION
Humans are hungry for transformation and good stories know that. The mistreated and abused step-daughter who goes on to marry a prince (Cinderella) or the woman who starts out frumpy and insecure but transforms into a sexy, confident woman after a haircut and wardrobe makeover (any makeover show).
The list goes on and on: the diamond that goes from nothing special to a treasured gem or even the cleaning videos you can find on TikTok of people washing dirt off rugs and organizing their houses.
It stems from the human desire to go from what we are to what we’re capable of, unlocking our want to be more than we currently are. It’s a powerful element of storytelling and it’s also one of the easiest to incorporate into your marketing because whatever you sell is taking someone from where they are now to where they want to be.
The takeaway: show your ideal clients where they are now in comparison to where they could be. Tap into where they dream of going by telling them what’s possible if they take a step in that direction.
6 – EMOTIONS SCATTERED THROUGHOUT
And what ties all of those pieces together? Emotion – the backbone, lifeblood, and undercurrent of all good storytelling. Because when people feel something, they remember it.
Pixar has perfected this one: they’ve got drawing on our emotions down to a science. They’ve made us empathize and care for just about everything out there: fish, toys, feelings that have feelings, monsters, robots, bugs, cars, and even rats to name a few of their most beloved movies.
And you know why? Because emotion is front and center. Think about Ratatouille, a movie about a rat, a wildly unpopular animal, who wants to be a chef which is a ridiculous, yet entertaining concept on its own, but he’s not just a rat.
He’s a rat who feels like an outsider, who want something more than what he’s told he can be.
He dares to dream and after (forcedly) breaking away from the group and life he knows, steps into an unknown world where against all odds he finds someone who gets him, recognizes his talent, and helps him pursue his dream. Throughout the movie he confronts his identity, he betrays someone he cares about, and lastly, he owns who he is and becomes someone he is proud of: a chef who not only serves real people in a real restaurant but changes rat culture forever by taking typical cuisine from trash to tasty, real food.
All of those points are incredibly emotionally compelling and relatable as hell. We can’t help but cheer Remy on as he embarks on an impossible journey and we can’t help but grin as his dream comes true.
There’s a reason that movie has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed 623 MILLION dollars at the box office.
The takeaway: Get emotional. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you want to touch on the core emotional human experiences in a way that’s authentic and true to your story.
The bottom line
Storytelling works and you can use storytelling in your marketing in all kinds of ways. Whether it’s the story of how your business got started, the story of your ideal client and what they’re looking for, the story you tell of how your offer transformed your customers’ life, or just a silly story you send to your email list, you can use stories everywhere.
And if you need someone to help you tell your stories, I think you might know a girl 😉
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