Beyond once upon a time: dialogue and the art of storytelling 2.0
by Michelle Gunn, PhD, VP/Creative Director, 17 Apr 2018
Storytelling has seen its share of attention over the last handful of years. It’s headlined the marcom conference circuit. It’s taken up a position alongside “authenticity” and “transparency” on many a Buzzword Bingo card. It conjures up a not-entirely-inaccurate tableau involving bearded, bespectacled hipster types sitting on stumps and strumming banjos as they read aloud from Oscar Wilde and inhale honeysuckle nectar from handcrafted steampunk vape pens. For example.
But, for all the bluster and ballyhoo that comes with it, is storytelling—as a strategy and as a discipline—being done the right way? How do you harness its power and potential for your brand? And perhaps most important, what is the next iteration of storytelling?
When it comes to brand experience and engagement, storytelling is a fine start. But it’s far from enough. Here’s why.
Telling a story is a one-sided enterprise.
When you tell a story, you establish a binary relationship: There’s you, the one doing the telling. And there’s the audience, the ones doing the listening (and hopefully not the checking of the Instagram or the writing of the grocery lists). When it works, it works well. Provided you’re blessed with a largely frictionless environment and a receptive audience, traditional performative storytelling can be a both appropriate and effective approach.
But what happens when, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, you find yourself failing to communicate?
At its worst, storytelling can feel narcissistic. A story told poorly to the right audience, or told well to the wrong audience, can come off as salesy and spammy, alien and inauthentic. It runs the risk of leaving the audience feeling antagonistic, even hostile. Cue the rotten tomatoes.
Dialogue represents a collaborative effort.
Dialogue offers an evolution of storytelling—a more complex and nuanced approach that places your audience squarely within the story. It relies on a shared context, setting the stage for an interaction that’s symbiotic, dynamic and often entirely unpredictable. By its very nature, dialogue establishes an environment that’s hospitable to emotional connection and, in turn, action.
Look, it’s not just squishy stuff; it’s science. Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural mechanisms involved with communication, particularly in response to external stimuli like storytelling. His research suggests that the brain activity of the storyteller is replicated (or “coupled”) in the brain of the listener. “The stronger the neural coupling between interlocutors, the better the understanding,” he explains.
But the magic of neural coupling doesn’t happen every time you tell a story. Not even every time you tell a good story. “This alignment depends not only on our ability to understand the basic concept,” Dr. Hasson observes in a related TED Talk. “It also depends on our ability to develop common ground and understanding and shared belief systems.”
In other words, neural coupling happens only when there is solidarity and reciprocity in the relationship between the speaker and listener. They’re engaged in a mutual exchange that foments deep emotional connections and, in turn, a greater degree of engagement. The story, then, becomes something more complex and sophisticated; it becomes a dialogue.
Here’s an example. A month or so ago, I was puttering around the kitchen when I heard from the living room a few strains of a song that immediately catapulted me back to 1990. The Pixies’ indie anthem “Here Comes Your Man” anchors a TV spot for Citi, which features an aging Gen Xer mindlessly pushing a shopping cart across a supermarket parking lot. Inspired by the chorus, the man jumps onto the edge of the cart and coasts across the asphalt, his youthful spontaneity revived (if only for the moment) by his parking lot joyride. I was positively transported.
The time of day (dusk) and the costume cues (button-up shirt, blazer jacket) imply his identity as a professional; clearly, he’s knocking out the grocery shopping on the way home from the office, as I have done at least twice in just the last week. But even more vital to the story was that quiet, fleeting gesture of rebellion inspired by the soundtrack of a joyriding, freewheeling youth. Everything about this spot—from banality of the parking lot to that transient moment of defiance—felt as familiar as my own pulse. I even recognized the rickrack edifice of the Super A Foods as the actual store where I bought ramen and couscous in college.
In short, this character’s story is my story. And mine is his.
Now. Is the story well told? Sure. And would a story without these nostalgic cues have inspired the same frisson of recognition? Probably not. After all, the soundtrack and geography of my youth managed to converge (almost too conveniently) in a commercial for my highest-balance credit card. But this spot offers more than a sentimental story. It offers common ground. I participated emotionally and experientially in the narrative that Citi shared, going so far as to give it a shout out on Facebook. It’s that shared context that elevates the spot from story to dialogue, from action to interaction.
Dialogue reveals (and fixes) potential problems.
Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, recommends that storytellers engage in some “back and forth” and with the audience as a means of “negotiat[ing] a shared context before telling a story.” I’d take it a step further. What she suggests involves more than icebreaking or casual research. Rather, the very act of engaging in dialogue reframes the original story, altering it so that it’s more collaborative and ultimately more successful.
Simmons also notes that dialogue has the capacity to “reveal gaps in understanding before they cause a problem.” It serves both as a diagnostic tool, underscoring potential areas of miscommunication, and a remedial tool, allowing you to make adjustments on the fly.
Dialogue allows for more diverse content types.
By now, most marketers are comfortable with the fact that content type helps to shape the message we share with our audience. Stories emerge through words, static images and dynamic media; powerful stories often engage all three. But those stories can grow even richer and more compelling when they involve content that demands the user take an active role in creating a shared experience. These content types can be as simple as a survey or Twitter chat, or as robust as user-generated content. Either way, they allow the audience to collaborate in the creation of the story—so they can internalize it, respond to it, manipulate it and make it their own.
The popular photoblog and social project Humans of New York (HONY) has proven particularly adept at using different content types for maximum emotional response and engagement. The project began in 2010, when an unemployed photographer, Brandon Stanton, decided to create a photographic census of 10,000 arbitrarily selected New York residents. “Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them,” explains Stanton. “And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.”
The stories that has Stanton captured are remarkable in both their particularity and their universality; they’re at once impossibly idiosyncratic and relatable. But I think that part of what’s so captivating about the series is our ability to talk to one another about the subject—and even to talk back to the subject him- or herself. Social media affords us the opportunity to elevate the discourse from story to dialogue. In several instances, HONY’s Facebook followers have succeeded in shaping that dialogue in concrete ways.
For example, in 2013, Stanton interviewed a local photographer who shared that he and his wife wished to adopt a child from Ethiopia, but lacked the money to do so. Stanton quickly launched an Indiegogo campaign on behalf of HONY and, within 90 minutes, the crowdfunding site surpassed its $26,000 goal. The contributions—most of them in $10 increments—made the adoption possible. In this case, then, the dialogue has transformed the original story in the most profound and joyous of ways.
Today, HONY features stories from more than 20 countries. These micro-documentaries are available as blog and social media content, as well as two bestselling print books and a video series. At this writing, the series has more than 18 million followers on Facebook alone.
The bottom line.
Storytelling is a performance—one that’s essential to the successful articulation of any brand. But the spotlight needn’t be such a solitary place. Because, by inviting the audience to contribute their voice(s), we as marketers permit both the story and the telling greater dimension, and greater potential. The rigid roles of speaker and listener begin to fall away, replaced by a relationship based on reciprocity. In turn, the shared emotional connection between both parties grows more dynamic, more genuine, more fully alive. Therein is the true value of dialogue. And as far as I can tell, there’s no industry buzzword quite as satisfying as that.
Want to learn more?Contact us!
Get updates; just enter your email below. Simple as that.
AI Generated Content : Fast & Affordable Comes at a Cost
by Steve Steger, 18 Mar 2019
Content Tells. Direct Sells.
by Rosann Bartle, 21 Feb 2019
Behind the Click: Five Cognitive Biases That Drive Action
by Michelle Gunn, PhD, 12 Feb 2019
The Real Game: Google vs. Microsoft
by Jana Ferguson, 05 Feb 2019
Did the Super Bowl Ads Live Up to the Hype?
by Steve Steger, 05 Feb 2019
Super Bowl Quick Takes
by Lesley Goldberg, 05 Feb 2019
Ten Emails I’m Glad I Didn't Have to Read Last Month
by Stephen Steger, 28 Jan 2019
The Top Three Tips to Make You King of the SERP This Black Friday and Cyber Monday
by Margaret Davis, 20 Nov 2018
Voice applications and natural language are bigger than the kitchen.
by Bryan Knouse, 29 Oct 2018
Are you ready for Amazon advertising?
by Debra Wang, 25 Oct 2018
Even Mighty Amazon Can’t Deliver on Grocery Delivery
by David Randolph, 15 Aug 2018
Google’s ready for Its face-lift
by DRUM Media, 25 Jul 2018
Why it’s important to invest in non-branded paid search
by Kelsey Chadwick, 27 Jun 2018
Why paid search should be your go-to media
by Katherine Jianas, 18 Jun 2018
Why Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal makes me thrilled for the future of content marketing
by Ben Heiser, 21 May 2018
YouTube for Nonprofits
by Virginia Doty, 15 May 2018
Takeaways from MarTech 2018
by Michael Cruz, Chief Content Officer, 15 May 2018
Which do your consumers prefer? Inbox or Mailbox? (Infographic)
by DRUM, 14 May 2018
Get smart with Google smart bidding
by Hailee Sosnowski, 27 Apr 2018
The amazing power of personalization
by DRUM, 19 Apr 2018
SEM 101 for Nonprofits
by Jay Reyes & Chase Bender, 12 Apr 2018
How to inspire workplace creativity
by Stephen Steger, 03 Apr 2018
Local SEO for brands and franchises: Top 3 tips from 15 SEO experts
by Greg Lee, 02 Apr 2018
Next steps for advertisers after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook breach
by Traci Hendrix, 26 Mar 2018
Are you ready for the GDPR? A guide for advertising agencies
by Jerelle Gainey and Debra Wang, 15 Mar 2018
Q&A: Experts dish on the future of paid search
by Chelsea Huston, 06 Mar 2018
Why content moments are the key to understanding content marketing
by Ben Heiser, 28 Feb 2018
Why bad advertising is a form of bad manners: lessons from a Ugandan storefront
by Scott Johnson, 20 Feb 2018
Retailers and the lower funnel trap
by David Randolph, 06 Feb 2018
What’s the body language of your content really saying?
by Zoë Courtman-Smith, 31 Jan 2018
10 things to look for in enterprise SEO software: 2018 tool review
by Greg Lee, 30 Jan 2018
The top 3 PPC marketing search engines of 2018
by Debra Wang and Vladimir Bradic, 26 Jan 2018
How new changes to Google Grant will affect your nonprofit
by Shelby Huckeba, 19 Jan 2018
Latest Giving Tuesday campaign ideas from marketing-minded nonprofits
by Adam Binkley, Jay Reyes and Ruby Wustrak, 18 Jan 2018
State of Social in 2018
by Ashley Reed, 17 Jan 2018
Top 7 posts of 2017
by Jamie Wigington, 17 Jan 2018
How should SEM experts prepare for voice search? [INFOGRAPHIC]
by DRUM, 17 Jan 2018
7 Digital trends that will change how you market in 2018
by DRUM Media, 17 Jan 2018
What advertisers need to know about Apple's intelligent tracking prevention
by Jerelle Gainey, 06 Oct 2017
Using direct mail to reactivate online customers
by Rosann Bartle, 22 Sep 2017
Bing shop ‘til you drop
by Hailee Sosnowski, 14 Aug 2017
Finding a web design process that works
by Todd Chambers, 02 Aug 2017
3 Commandments for creating incredibly engaging content
by Ben Heiser, 02 Aug 2017
Twitter ads and targeting techniques that work
by Annie Green, 27 Jul 2017
5 benefits of paid social advertising
by Karina Khemani, 14 Jul 2017
Oh snap! Snapchat just upped their ad game
by Traci Hendrix, 12 Jul 2017
Dying is easy, comedy is hard
by Scott Johnson, 10 Jul 2017
Marketing and the meteor test
by Scott Johnson, 05 Jul 2017
The value of local SEO (Even when your customers aren't)
by Gregory Lee, 23 Jun 2017
The best Facebook ad types and targeting options for driving sales
by Annie Green, 15 Jun 2017
Linking online marketing to offline consumer behavior
by Heather Roach, 08 Jun 2017
To push a nonprofit's mission, you have to push with passion
by Nicole Bendel, 05 Jun 2017
7 ways B2B marketers can find success in social media
by Traci Hendrix, 31 May 2017
Google’s data-driven attribution: what you need to know
by Kimberly Honore, 23 May 2017
The skinny on Yahoo's native search retargeting feature
by Shelby Huckeba, 15 May 2017
Why you should always include brand search in your digital strategy
by Katherine Jianas, 04 May 2017
How to use content marketing to finally unify marketing strategies
by Gregory Lee, 16 Apr 2017
5 things we learned at Google’s “Search in 2017 & Beyond” event
by Kimberly Honore, 05 Apr 2017
To sell to the ego, you gotta talk to the id.
by Zoe Courtman-Smith, 04 Apr 2017
Social listening inspires smarter business strategies
by Alicia Trahan, 03 Apr 2017
Brand safety: how programmatic partners protect our clients' brands
by Brittany Altman, 31 Mar 2017
How inactive subscribers can affect deliverability
by Billy McNair, 27 Mar 2017
5 reasons to insist on 1st party data for CRM targeting
by Samantha Halpin, 22 Mar 2017
Conversation, not content, is king
by Scott Johnson, 15 Mar 2017