What do stories mean and why do we tell them? You have a story, I do too, and so should your business. Stories are things that connect us on multiple levels; spiritually, mentally, psychologically, socially. Stories help us find our place in the world, hold that place when we find it, and tell others while we are there.
In Crush It!, Gary Vaynerchuk says that “Storytelling is by far the most underrated skill in business.” Another internet entrepreneur, Chris Guillebeau wrote, “If you want people to pay attention to you, the first step is to establish a compelling story.”
Stories help us understand things. Vaynerchuk’s newest book title is Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. In the title there is a story. It’s the story of a fight, of work, of effort. It’s strategy, it’s a story within a story within a story. It’s a good title.
In the excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast (YANSS), David McRaney interviews professor Melanie Green. Melanie says that when we consume a narrative world, we enter into it. “We take the information from the stories and bring it into the real world with us” and she says that these stories don’t even need to be true. If we can find a story that we relate to, it draws us in and causes us to empathize with the characters. Once we have an emotional response to the characters we see ourselves as part of the story.
Apple’s Misunderstood and Samsung’s Are You Geared Up serve as a good dichotomy of stories. In the Apple commercial a boy, about thirteen, is seen through most of the commercial with his phone out. He’s got it out while walking into Grandma’s house, he’s got it out while decorating the tree, and while people are eating. The early idea is that we’re all visiting with people who have their phones out, especially teens. The commercial brings us into the story because it’s ground we’ve walked before, and some we know the outcome of. As commercial concludes though, the boy shares the family video he’s been taking the entire time. It’s a lovely series of tree ornaments, sledding wipeouts, and sleeping kids. It’s very cute and it resonates because there’s a feeling of family we can relate to. I can empathize with the people in the commercial even though it’s not a great reflection of our Christmas.
In the Samsung commercial – Are You Geared Up? – there’s a heavy handedness to it. The Apple commercial editing is light and crisp and closer to home movie while Samsung’s is heavy from the music to the lighting. Immediately it’s harder to enter that world. Our real world view is closer to that of the Apple commercial, but that’s central the problem with Samsung’s commercial, the problem is that it’s a bad story. Apple’s commercial is about the everyman – the teen who, maybe doesn’t save Christmas but at least serves it. Samsung’s commercial is about meeting a girl on the ski slopes, and while I wanted to visualize myself in the gadget wearing shoes of the guy who gets the girl, I felt more like the guy who doesn’t. I drop my phone all the time, I dig through my pockets to find it, I have clumsy fingers that make me re-type things. I have sympathy and empathy for the goof. Instead of seeing the Samsung Gear – the smartwatch that links with my phone – as a solution to my problems, I saw it as irrelevant. In the commercial I related to the other guy and related to his product, not the one I was being sold.
Ultimately, Apple’s commercial succeeds because viewers empathized with making snowmen with family, instead of meeting snow bunnies in Europe. If we were jet-setting east coasters who could, and do head to Europe to ski, then we might relate. Ironically enough, it’s Apple products that are typically framed as more expensive or elite, but if you compare only these commercials you would think the opposite.
Dr. Green says that empathizing with the story is is important because the more we relate to a story, the less counterarguing we do toward it. This happens to me quite often. I’ll get an email, phone call, or a stranger approaching me, and they’ll start to ask if I have problem they can solve. Immediately my guard rises and I begin thinking about reasons to avoid this sales tactic. If there is a story to enter through and we see parts of ourselves there, then that links us to the things in the story. Imagine the feeling entering a stranger’s home compared to your own, our brain does that with stories.
In the YANSS podcast Dr. Green also suggests that stories we relate to have an evolutionary advantage. Our abilities to reflect on memories and project them to things that might happen has helped us survive. As we evolved we learned to remember how to get to a berry patch without being attacked by bears. We return to these memories while walking along the berry path, and they served us well. Green suggests that stories might be the way we use other people’s experiences to figure out the world. We enter the world of their story, to try and incorporate it into our memories to use as projections for the future. We know the way to the berry patch to avoid the bear, the stories people tell advise us how to climb an apples tree and not get stung by bees. We now have twice the understanding for how to get food, thanks to stories.
The Apple commercial peels back our psychological layers and guards to sneak into this primal portion of of our brain. We watch the commercial, we experience the story, and we think about that – and some people I would guess actually did it. Some people probably did exactly that this Christmas, after seeing the commercial.
There’s another aspect with stories, between finding fruit and buying iPhones. Stories help us understand who they are. The authors of both The Secrets of Happy Families and How Children Succeed, write about the value of stories in helping us identify who we are and how we’ve succeeded. The story of each, is that we need to know about times our family – Uncle Dad, Grandma Nancy, Cousin Bert – faced a challenge and succeeded. When the younger generations know this, then they too are more likely to successfully face challenges and overcome them.
One other video from the end of December that shared the power of stories was The Christmas Scale. It’s a short, two and a half minutes and moving if you ascribe to a certain spiritual path, but it also works as a story.
The voice sounds old and wise, like if an oak tree in your yard was giving you advice. The narrator tells the story about his mother’s attempts to teach him to play the piano, and his failures to do so. She even told him that the piano scale could tell the “greatest story ever told” but he forwent and forget her advice until one day after she had passed, when he sat down at the piano again.
The video is the story of generations and how the older ones try to teach us things but the younger ones seldom listen. The best teachings though are those that stick with us, those instructions for things – like the one in the video – so that we can remember the lesson when we’re ready to learn it. This video has empathy in spades and hearts.
Stories matter. When you’re telling a story to people outside your core group (family, business, team) then in those stories you want to create empathy. You want those people to feel related to you. You can do this through shared experiences (like the iPhone commercial) or relate to them though common history. Commercials for minivans do this well, showing the fit and active mother who’s running kids around town. Look around your town and that’s what you see in minivans.
The second important way we use stories is as learning moments within our group. In families and teams we need to have a shared history, a feeling of connection. We need to have stories that show us how to persevere because we are people who do that sort of thing. Think about your family, do you have any of these things that Johnsons do? Do Millers never give up? Do Watsons stay until the job’s done? Those phrases should be rooted in stories so they aren’t just phrases.
What then should your business be doing? You should be working on two types of stories, your external ones and internal ones. Externally you should be writing case studies about how a customer uses your product. Internally you need to have stories about perseverance and if it’s just you they can be personal stories, if it’s more than you they should be team stories.