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Is Storytelling Child’s Play? Lessons for Brands from the Toughest Critics

Communications & Brand Strategy

Hotwire Global

by Christa Conte, EVP, Head of Client Services, Hotwire Global

From TedX to MasterClass to today’s top marketing agencies and executives, “storytelling” is on everyone’s minds and in every brand’s business plans. But what is it and why is it important?

According to National Geographic, the first evidence of different cultures and communities telling stories dates back more than 30,000 years. The purpose? To communicate and ultimately leave a legacy (by passing down traditions) for future generations. And in the words of the great Maya Angelou, “you can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.”

While our cave walls have received a digital makeover, the use of images (still or moving) and words (long or short-form) have not changed much. And now with the ease and seamlessness of creating and sharing content, the amount created each day is mind-numbing. The rise of generative AI only supplements this number as I personally asked ChatGPT what the most common AI prompts were, to which I received:

● “Write a poem/story about…”
● “Compose a letter/email to…”
● “Invent a new fantasy creature and describe it.”

And those are just text focused. The capabilities and results of AI image generators often go beyond the boundaries of human imagination. This raises the question, have we lost the uniqueness and importance of storytelling? Is every story just a retelling? Each night at bedtime, my two gremlins magically transform into perfect angels with the gentle request of, “will you tell us a story please?” Their big, twinkling, Disney-esque eyes gazing up at me, pleading for something “new” despite the endless supply of books they have to choose from in both our home library and our local public library. So, I find myself racking my tired, post 12-hour workday, full-time mom brain, for something untold. Leveraging both my AP English and Journalism-focused academic curricula, I do my best to follow the simple formulas that every good writer follows – plot, setting, characters, etc. or the “inverted pyramid” – you know the drill.

As of late however, I find my bedtime stories met with mixed reviews from my toughest tiny critics and soon realized a few key points that enhanced my storytelling.

  1. Relevancy to my audience – My stories regularly begin with Princess Chloe or Astronaut Ben – which immediately draws in my listeners with a few keywords that they are familiar with and can relate to and visualize (even if it’s just in a hopefully optimistic way). Similar to corporate storytelling, abstract ideas or jargon get lost in the void – and in turn lose the attention of your audience. It’s critical to get to the heart of what they care about and to paint an immediate picture that sparks new potential storylines and ideas to keep them engaged for the long haul.
  2. Identifying a current challenge or issue – Once you have your audience hooked, you need to bring them along for the ride. And what concept does this better than any other; conflict resolution. As my kids have grown, their problems have gotten a bit bigger and more complex as well – not unlike any growing business. By simplifying some of their most complicated challenges through actions and examples, I’m summarizing a core issue in a way that is engaging for them. This can play out repeatedly for brands and businesses through case studies or scenario planning. Distilling complex challenges is what some of the greatest business leaders do today.
  3. Offering an honest, authentic outcome – It may have worked on the first telling but today any story that ends with a magic bean or flick of a wand is not very interesting. Thanks to the vastness and ease of consuming content, audiences today are more skeptical and curious about a “happily ever after” than ever before. Princesses aren’t looking for a prince, they’re looking to find self-actualization. This applies to businesses and brands that are more than the products they sell – they are change-makers, called on by audiences and consumers at broad to work towards a bigger purpose and mission. This allows storytelling to not just be a means to “the end” but a nod to new beginnings.

As brand marketers and creators continue to churn out content, it’s my New Year’s wish that we all consider the above in our storytelling efforts. And while I’m all for a helpful prompt, I can guarantee that my two most critical bosses will immediately sniff out any stories that are generated by AI and not Mom-E. But, not unlike machines, we as humans, also learn from the feedback we’re given and can pass those learnings down to future generations – the bright side is we don’t have to venture into a cave to find them.