Reach Your Audience: Start With the Story
By Gabrielle Good Hoffman
The element of “story” is more powerful than most people realize. Strong stories stimulate emotion, bond communities together and set individuals apart. They stick in our memories. They fundamentally affect our beliefs and the choices we make based on those beliefs. Personal experience with the power of narrative is backed by scientific evidence: the process of storytelling feeds our innate psychological desire to create meaning by connecting experiences and information.
Storytelling as an Art and Science
While storytelling has long been a part of marketing and communications, it has a new urgency in recent years. As expanding media have increased the quantity of voices in the marketplace, companies and organizations must be more strategic than ever to be heard. In response, some companies are putting a premium on storytelling skills by hiring people—like acclaimed filmmakers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, or Booker Prize-winning novelist Mohsin Hamid—who devote their lives to understanding the nuances of this art.
The desire to tell powerful stories and to help others tell powerful stories is the heart of what drew me personally into this business. Every organization, whether a business, or a school, or other nonprofit, begins with a person or group having a vision for how to connect with and fulfill a need for others. This instinctive desire to connect and serve is the start of a story. Organizations are also constantly changing. Momentum is how a story grows. Presenting these stories so that they resonate with audiences is both an art and a science. Successful filmmakers and authors inspire people to feel as if they are present in the midst of someone else’s story. In our field, we employ the craft to absorb audiences so deeply that they recognize themselves as part of the narrative.
Tell Your Own Story With Your Priorities
A cohesive story can be told in any format, ranging from radio spots to online banner ads, from websites to 10-minute videos, from brochures to boutique-printed coffee table books. At Good Design, we have used effective storytelling to help clients launch start-ups and celebrate milestone anniversaries. The key to success in any situation is focusing on the visuals and details that make a story relevant to its audience, memorable, and true to an organization’s mission.
Framing an organization’s story is as valuable internally as it is externally. We recently created a commemorative book to celebrate the centennial of an independent school. Like any 100-year-old organization, this institution had grown and changed dramatically since its inception. Strong storytelling techniques were critical to transporting audiences’ imaginations to the different eras and highlighting the continuity of this school’s identity. The resulting product is inspiring current student families, alumni, and faculty to recognize the stature of this school through new eyes. A deeper understanding of the school’s story, promotes a deeper appreciation of and commitment to its unique qualities.
A mistake we often see is when organizations don’t realize that if they don’t control their stories, then someone else will. The same brain wiring that makes a story so influential can also lead us astray. Dating back to the times of cave paintings and the earliest human societies, people don’t just appreciate story, they crave it. Sometimes an organization’s clients or constituents are taken off guard, perhaps by a change in leadership or direction. In the absence of a specific story, the public mind comes up with a story of its own—and it may be neither accurate nor good. This can also happen if an organization has not been recently and proactively visible. Because of the “stickiness” of a dramatic story, rumors can be difficult to dispel.
In today’s marketplace, successful storytelling is critical for distinguishing organizations as memorable, dynamic and relevant. This timeless craft frames messages in ways that connect employees and consumers, allowing organizations to attract and retain the audiences they serve.
Gabrielle Good Hoffman is the co-founder of Good Design, based in Connecticut. For nearly three decades the firm has specialized in developing effective marketing strategies and multi-media materials that businesses, independent schools, and other organizations need to succeed.