Creating Stories That Stick: How Marketers Can Win With Story

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Want to craft better stories in your marketing? Wondering what makes a good story?

To explore the power of stories in marketing, I interview Kindra Hall on the Social Media Marketing Podcast.

Kindra is the author of Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business. She’s also a keynote speaker and hosts storytelling workshops.

Kindra explains why stories can work for marketers and shares the four key components every story needs to be effective.

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Scroll to the end of the article for links to important resources mentioned in this episode.

Getting Started With Storytelling

So much of Kindra’s work now is about storytelling in business; in marketing, it’s all about the stories. But her start with storytelling was long before she was in business. Kindra recalls telling her first story when she was 11 years old. Each child in her fifth-grade English class was assigned to read a children’s book to a third-grade class.

Kindra knew there were a few factors working against her. Number one, it was the end of the school year in Minnesota, which, as any Midwesterner knows, means the kids were seeing the sun for the first time in months. So she had that distraction working against her.

It was also the end of the school day, and once you approach that last hour, all bets are off. She walked into the room and the teacher was sitting in the back, staring off into space, counting down the minutes until the buses come to take the kids away. The kids were bouncing off the walls and climbing on the desks. Kindra made a last-minute decision: Instead of reading the book, she put the book down and simply told them the story.

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After a few sentences, the whole classroom was quiet, everyone was sitting back down on the rug, and they were all just staring at her, hanging on every word. Kindra felt in that moment that she had stumbled into an alternate universe and had just discovered some secret power. As children, we beg for bedtime stories. It’s something we all crave. But it doesn’t stop with childhood. It turns out that no matter what age we are, stories draw us in.

Kindra went on to tell stories on her school’s speech team. At the end of high school, she entered a national storytelling competition. The grand prize was a trip to the National Storytelling Festival in the little town of Jonesboro, Tennessee.

National Storytelling Festival website

The first weekend in October, 10,000 people flood this zero-stop-light town. They bring in world-renowned storytellers and people squeeze into these huge circus tents and sit on these half-sized chairs just to listen to the stories. Kindra remembers sitting in the audience with her mother. She remembers looking around the tent and listening to the stories as if they were laying themselves out in front of her, Matrix-style.

Kindra noticed two things in particular. First, the great stories didn’t have to be overly dramatic; they just followed a certain arc and included certain components. The second thing she noticed as she looked around the room was that there were people of all different ages in the audience and everyone was equally captivated by these stories.

Kindra continued going to that storytelling festival, and eventually, she joined the board of directors for the National Storytelling Network. She attended storytelling conferences and workshops. Her background in storytelling had nothing to do with business or marketing. Most of the time, it had been all about the story.

As time went on, Kindra knew she wanted to do something with stories beyond just traveling around to different storytelling festivals. She had a passion for business so she finished her master’s degree and went on to become a director of marketing and VP of sales. It turned out that this thing that she had been doing her whole life as a hobby was actually the thing that made her the best at her job.

Eventually, she left her job in marketing and sales, started a family, and began consulting to help individuals, non-profits, and companies tell their stories.

home page for website of Kindra Hall

Why Stories Are Valuable

Humans are programmed for stories. This goes all the way back to the beginnings of humanity. This is how we organized our knowledge and communicated about intangible things. Stories are part of what it is to be human.

Tapping into that element of human nature is such a powerful force. When we’re following a good story, our brain releases chemicals that make us pay attention. If the story is done well, our brains engage in what Kindra calls the co-creative process: We take those details and paint a picture in our own heads while we’re hearing it. That co-creative process is something we can’t help so we have this desire, this addiction, to hearing stories.

Kindra recently made a big mistake. She called a friend whom she’d been missing. Later, Kindra texted her and said, “Hey, have I got a story for you!”—which she now realizes was a unique form of torture. After sending that text, Kindra boarded a long flight and the internet on the plane wasn’t working, so she wasn’t able to text her friend back.

By the time she landed, her friend had sent her multiple text messages, a couple of voicemails, and an Instagram message because she wanted to hear that story so badly.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, we all want to hear stories. That’s why they’re so valuable and powerful, and we just know this intuitively. But we often make the mistake of thinking we’re telling stories when we’re not.

Telling Brand Stories

Stories are really important for marketers. First, we’re all competing for a limited amount of mind share from our prospects and customers. And when we can tell a story that engages them, we can capture some of that attention, which is absolutely necessary for marketing.

If we tell a good story, we also establish some credibility—that “know, like, and trust” factor—which is such an important part of marketing. We’re in a time when we have so much connectivity. We can see what everyone’s doing at any time, yet we still feel very disconnected.

So marketers, particularly those working within companies, have an incredible opportunity for that “know, like, trust” aspect to humanize business. You can tap into that human emotion and really make your potential and current customers feel that connection to you as a human brand.

Disney+ has a series called The Imagineering Story, which features the engineers who make the rides at Disney’s theme parks. They talk about how stories are conveyed as you go through the rides. Thunder Mountain has an actual story arc so it’s not just a rollercoaster. They’re very intentional about how they try to create an experience on all of these rides. Indiana Jones is another example: They tell a story while you’re in line so they’re leading up to this big crescendo, which is the experience.

Disney+ webpage for The Imagineering Story

They’re probably the masters of bringing stories to life in the real world. Almost everybody has been to a Disney property and it shows you how cool it is to live that story. One of the incredible things about storytelling is it makes things matter more. I’ve been on those rides but I imagine that if I had heard the stories behind them, I would want to go back.

Similarly, Netflix has a show called 7 Days Out, which documents the 7 days leading up to a big event such as the Westminster Dog Show or New York Fashion Week. One episode chronicles the 7 days leading up to the reopening of Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant in New York City that was rated the best restaurant in the world.

Eleven Madison Park only accepts reservations exactly 1 month in advance. If you’re coming to town on December 15, you must have made your reservation on November 15. Each setting is prix fixe and you pay in advance. It costs hundreds of dollars just for the food, not including alcohol.

Kindra had foodie friends coming to town who had seen the episode and wanted to go to the restaurant. They wanted Kindra and her husband to join them. Kindra’s husband Michael is very money-conscious so when she told him how much the reservations were going to be, he said, “No, absolutely not. That’s not happening.” So Kindra showed Michael the Netflix special.

The episode did such a great job telling the story of this restaurant that their friends did wind up making reservations for four because Michael was now on board. He wanted to go experience this restaurant after hearing the story. They enjoyed the restaurant even more because they were now a part of the story.

Whether it’s upscale, downscale, or commoditized, being able to tell this “behind the scenes” story, the “it’s so much more” story, adds such an incredibly different, irresistible dimension to marketing.

The 4 Key Elements of a Story

In the process of writing her book and in her career, Kindra never wanted to just tell people, “You should be telling stories.” We’ve all heard that, especially nowadays. She really wanted to give a measurement or a blueprint for how to do it. She did some research on what she deduced were the four key components of a story. She created almost a checklist of things that a story needs to make it effective—after putting them into practice for over two decades.

Kindra Hall's book Stories That Stick

The four key components (in no particular order) are identifiable character (one to three of them), authentic emotion, a moment, and specific details.

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Identifiable Character

It’s easy to say, “Our brand is our story” or “This is our story,” and proceed to just talk about the history of the company or flash a logo on a screen. But people don’t want to do business with businesses. They want to do business with people. And the brand isn’t the story—the stories are the brand being experienced by people.

Where stories can go wrong is by staying too broad. We talk about the company or the brand when what we really need to do is narrow it down to a particular character, a person. Maybe it’s a customer, maybe it’s an employee, maybe it’s the founder of the company—but to the listener of the story, the point of an identifiable character is to give the audience someone they can identify with. A person they can picture and say, “Oh, I feel like I know them” or “They seem a lot like me.”

In The Imagineering Story, retired employees sometimes tell stories; for instance, they related how they came up with the Indiana Jones car. They had to find something that wasn’t built to carry people, then figure out how to put it on a track, and cut corners, and do it all safely.

First they designed the car and then they designed the ride around the car because they wanted to create an immersive experience. It was really fascinating because these were just everyday people but they were there at the beginning. They helped create the idea that became the product.

Those stories were told in bits and pieces by the engineers, so each one of those people over time became a character to you. Someone you could identify with, instead of just “our team of engineers.” You can’t picture a team of engineers; you want to get to know Susan and Franco.

Think about that if you’re telling the story of one of your customers: who they are, what they like, the kind of person they are. You want to pick up on the nuances of that person because your potential customers want to think, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there before; I’ve felt that way.” You want them to have a real person they can connect to.

The choice of our characters really depends on the purpose of our message. If you’re trying to illustrate the particular features of a product, then the character could be the person who developed that product. They could relate their journey to finding the solution and making sure it was perfect and expressing their passion for developing that product. The character could also be someone who used that product and has seen a transformation in their lives.

There are a few determining factors to that decision, but ultimately, think about the message you want to deliver and what you want the audience to think, feel, know, or do as a result of hearing the story.

Also think about what’s available to you. You may have direct access to the product developers. Sit down with them and let them tell you their stories. You may want to talk to people in customer service who have long, drawn-out conversations with your customers. You want to hear those stories to get to know those characters.

Once you find the person, once you identify that relatable character, spend some time crafting the story with them and developing the arc. You can ask them to read it—whether it’s off a teleprompter, which is risky, or just delivering it line by line. Or you can design your questions to extract the right parts.

But the good news is that person doesn’t have to be super-talented. When people are telling their own stories, there’s a lot more leeway. And that ring of truth, that authenticity, comes through. Some people are really bad on camera, but when they’re telling their own stories, it works.

Authentic Emotion

This one is very important because one of the misconceptions or challenges that marketers face is we think that it has to be over the top. We want to create stories that have really big, dramatic emotions. It has to be someone’s worst day ever or a super-outrageous accomplishment. But the truth is even small emotions are really important; emotions like hope, guilt, frustration, or embarrassment.

If what we’re talking about is human connection, sometimes small emotion is even better because we don’t feel like we’re being marketed to. We feel like we’re hearing a story that sounds like our life.

One of the stories Kindra shares in her book is from an Apple ad called, “Misunderstood.” It’s about a boy who seems distracted by his phone but he’s actually taking little snapshots of his family together at the holidays. When it all comes together, it’s this beautiful imagery. The whole family is sitting down watching it and getting emotional about it.

In the video, the snapshots he was taking were really small moments but it was the emotion of togetherness, what family is really all about. There was also a side benefit of the audience misunderstanding him as a teenager and the revelation of that misunderstanding.

still shot from Apple's Misunderstood ad

As you’re crafting your stories, think about what your customers are feeling on a day-to-day basis—the importance of small, real, human emotion—and what stories can be told around that.

If they’re your stories, that’s one thing. If you’re responsible for telling someone else’s stories, though, think about what keeps them up at night. What do they worry about? What’s at stake for that person? Once you can tap into that, you’ll find where the emotion lies.

Another thing they do in The Imagineering Story is to show some of these engineers and then go to the opening of the ride. They ask them, “How did you feel when you saw people enjoying the thing that you helped create?” That was a small emotion but you could tell they were elated to see someone benefiting from something they created.

They also sent people overseas when they were building Disney parks in other countries, and they were talking about the challenges of dealing with a different culture. The CEO talked about how at first glance, they really kind of missed the mark culturally. You see people literally throwing eggs at the CEO at the opening of Disneyland Paris. They could have chosen not to share that story, but they showed how eventually they overcame it.

A Moment

When you’re telling a story, you want to bring your audience to a specific place and time so that they’re there with you. Stories go wrong by staying vague, when what they really need is to come all the way down to a particular moment.

This is more than just describing the setting; it isn’t necessarily about the description. Your goal here is really for your audience to see themselves right there in the story. So the moment could be when you first turned the sign on your office door from closed to open.

Kindra tells a story about going out to dinner with her husband after getting some unhappy news. They’d originally had these reservations to go celebrate something else, and they happened to get this unhappy news right before going out. Kindra describes that moment, with the two of them sitting at a steakhouse table that could fit eight people.

They sat all the way across from each other at that huge table under the dim lights until she finally asked him to come around to the other side to sit by her. After she tells the whole story, she’ll go back later and say, “Okay, how many of you were right there in the booth with us?” Everyone raises their hands. That’s what the moment is: bringing the listener to a very specific place and time.

This component drives that co-creative process. As your audience is hearing it, they’re picturing themselves in that story. When they do that, the story stays with them longer. That’s how you overcome all of the noise and get your message to stick with them. Bringing it down to a specific moment is a really powerful strategy in storytelling.

You can absolutely have more than one moment in a story. Remember how on actual printed maps, to see a particular area in a city, it would say, “See inset”? Then you had to go to the bottom corner of the map where it showed an enlargement of that particular area. That’s what this moment is. Your story is moving along, and then all of a sudden, you zoom all the way in.

You slow it down, you draw it in, you heighten the details, increase the saturation right there. And then you can pull back out of it and go along with the story. And then, depending on the length of the story or the nature of the story itself, there may be another point at which you zoom all the way into another moment.

If you do have two distinct moments, it’s a good idea to put some similarities into the way that you describe them. So if you’re zooming in on that moment at the steakhouse table, and then later in the story you zoom back in again to something else, you might include that the light was dim if that was a detail included in both the earlier and later moments in that steakhouse.

Specific Details

Specific details are the final component that drives the co-creative process. You can get very specific about the details in the story, and your listeners’ brains will pick up on that and they’ll hold it and keep it with them.

Kindra has a presentation she gives where she talks about picking someone up from the airport and she mentions that she was driving a silver Grand Am. The silver Grand Am really has nothing to do with the story but she always adds that detail. Later, about 30 minutes into her presentation, she asks, “How many of you can tell me what kind of car I was driving in the story you heard 30 minutes ago?” Consistently, about 95% of the attendees in the room remember that it was a silver Grand Am.

The power of a story is in the ability to keep people engaged. We love picking up on these tiny little details. The brain is listening for them, and for whatever reason, they stick. At the beginning of this conversation, Kindra included the details of those chairs in the storytelling tent being half the size of normal chairs. By taking a couple of extra minutes to put that detail in there, we remember that particular detail she included earlier.

Specific details can carry extra meaning or they can simply just be. Kindra worked with a gentleman on a story about opening his first bank account. One of the details he included was that there was a bowl of Werther’s candy sitting on the person’s desk. It had nothing to do with the story, it wasn’t a metaphor for anything else, but can’t you just picture it? Aren’t you suddenly sitting in a bank and seeing those Werther’s on the desk?

You have to be careful not to include too many details or put too much weight on them. Don’t make them work too hard. Just something as simple and straightforward as one detail will do exactly what you need it to.

Kindra worked with a new CEO who had to give a big address to his company at a large dinner event. It was his first address in front of a really large audience, and everybody was wondering who he was and what he was about.

He told the story of the first time he really experienced the true essence of what their company was all about. He was at an event and a homeless man came in. This was an organization dedicated to helping the least fortunate among us in the population. And so instead of asking the man to leave, someone gave him a chair, a bottle of water, and some cookies that were provided for the event.

The man sat there and evidently enjoyed the presentation. The CEO said, “I saw in that moment, this is what we do every day. Sometimes it’s as simple as a bottle of water and a handful of cookies. Sometimes it’s much, much more when we help people who need it most to find dignity and respect. Everyone deserves this.”

He got off stage at this dinner event, and then the MC got up and said, “Everyone please enjoy your dinner—and the special cookie that’s at your place.” It was a really cool way to incorporate that small detail of the cookie from his story into the real-life experience.

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What do you think? How do you use storytelling in your marketing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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