Storytelling today is a very mediated activity. We mostly consume stories through movies, books, video games, TV series, social media, and so on. This also applies to brand storytelling, by which companies seek to appeal to increasingly connected customers. But what about traditional, face-to-face storytelling? Is it still relevant and useful? And could it play a role to the benefit of modern companies and brands?
I started to ask myself those questions after reading a very interesting piece by Caitlin Causey on Post Independent (September 15, 2016). The article informs about Spellbinders, a nonprofit organization based in Carbondale, Colorado, which specializes in oral storytelling. What do they do? Basically they organize volunteer storytellers, willing to work with children in preschool and elementary grades.
In the article, Catherine Johnson, executive director of Spellbinders, explains why this is important: “Humans have been telling stories for at least 300,000 years… Research has shown that the human brain is literally hard-wired for story.” That’s why, Johnson says, Spellbinders’ mission is to build literacy and strengthen interpersonal connection. “The stories we tell impart vocabulary, but also the wisdom and humor of the ages. It’s just a great way to connect kids with other cultures and expose them to role models, both in the stories and in the people who are telling the stories. It builds eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart connections.”
But why the emphasis on oral storytelling? “The answer is simple: because we didn’t evolve with screens,” Johnson says. “Storytelling in oral form is one of the most basic forms of human interaction.”
If this is true, contemporary brand communication is missing something. Although it has adopted storytelling more and more in recent years, it mostly employs its screen variety. And that’s probably a mistake, a self-inflicted limitation that doesn’t take into account oral storytelling’s long history of influence and power.
How could companies use face-to-face storytelling today? Here are some ideas:
Finding the right storytellers
Every company has its natural storytellers – and often they do not belong to the communication department. You may easily discover them around the coffee machine, or at a company dinner: they are the ones who draw people’s attention by telling stories of any kind, for the sheer pleasure of enthralling an audience. These spontaneous storytellers can become precious in specific circumstances, where their talent may shine and should be leveraged. Sometimes the best narrators are in the highest positions; indeed, many CEOs have understood that telling a good story is the best way to have an impact on their organizations, and act accordingly.
Addressing little groups
Face-to-face storytelling may be used in front of a large public but – as when it all started hundreds of thousands of years ago – it is most effective in little groups. When could these situations occur? Think of company workshops, small events, off-site meetings; but also of attracting customers with evocative stories in front of your store. In some countries there still is a habit of inviting people to enter restaurants by extolling the good cuisine they might find inside. Pushy attitudes of this kind can be annoying, but what about a real storyteller telling fascinating stories about a certain culinary tradition? That could make your dinner much more rewarding and lead you to associate a restaurant to a unique and memorable experience.
As Catherine Johnson says, the art of storytelling is about building connections – between you and the storyteller, and between you and the stories themselves with all their wealth of inspiration. If the story is about your company – its history or its vision – it can help to motivate people and enrich their feeling of sharing the same purpose. Compared to videos or print communication, oral storytelling can make human connections much more relevant and deeper.
Enlarging the imagination
Notoriously, storytelling is the most imaginative of all communication forms. Films and novels make us identify with their heroes because their troubles are so close to ours. But the same mechanism is at work with oral storytelling; and its ability to build heart-to-heart connections can make the effect even stronger. This implies that face-to-face storytelling may be a wonderful way for companies to let their employees and customers widen their imagination. If our brain is hard-wired for story, we don’t actually want to hear too many data and facts from companies. What we really want is to listen to someone putting those data into a brand story and take us along a narrative journey that has true meaning, excites our fantasies and resonates with our lives.