A business needs stories to survive and thrive
Inside a cave in southern France there is evidence that humans have told stories since the dawn of time.
The Chauvet cave paintings of bears, horses, bison, owls and rhinos are estimated to have been etched on the cave walls between 32,000 and 36,000 years ago, during the Ice Age.
Nobody knows what stories might have been told with these pictures. In fact, you have to fast forward to just 4,000 years ago for the world’s oldest known story, The Epic of Gilgamesh from the ancient kingdom of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.
But what these and countless other cave paintings and fragments of ancient text show us is how deeply storytelling is embedded in our humanity.
Survive and thrive
In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, University of Auckland professor Brian Boyd argues that storytelling is a human evolutionary adaptation that offers “tangible benefits” for survival.
Just what these benefits might be was recently explored by a team of researchers from University College London.
The researchers studied hunter-gatherer communities in Asia to examine the role that storytelling played in their societies.
In these communities, unexposed to modern-day moralising influences like organised religion, stories are essential for promoting co-operative and egalitarian values.
In a series of experiments, they offered members of the communities an allocation of rice to either keep for themselves or share with others. The more skilled storytellers that there were in the community, the more people were likely to share what they had with others.
Not only do stories help hunter-gatherer communities survive and thrive; the study by the UCL researchers also suggests there are evolutionary benefits to being a skilled storyteller.
When members of the Agta hunter-gather community in the Philippines were asked who they would most like to live with, skilled storytellers were twice more likely to be named than less skilled individuals.
Storytellers were more popular even than the best foragers. They also had greater reproductive success, and were more likely to gain the cooperation of other members of the community.
If storytelling can be linked to basic human needs and desires, then businesses can use stories to better connect with their customers.
Apple is rated among the best in the world at doing this. The technology company recently topped a poll of the UK’s best storytelling brands for a fifth straight year, beating Help for Heroes, a charity for wounded veterans, into second place.
How does a company selling phones and computers make more of a connection with people than a charity telling tales of fallen warriors?
By consistently connecting with its customers at an emotional level.
Storytelling at its best engages hearts and minds. Apple succeeds at doing this by communicating itself as a brand with vision, a brand with purpose.
Apple invites its customers to be part of something bigger than themselves.
That something bigger isn’t just a story: it’s a narrative.
Apple’s narrative is condensed into the slogan “think different”.
John Hagel, founder of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge in Silicon Valley, says that Apple’s narrative is so powerful because it invites the customer to be part of the story.
It invites the customer to think about the world and technology in a different way.
Hagel defines the difference between a story and a narrative as follows: firstly, stories are self-contained, with a beginning, middle and end, while narratives are open-ended. Secondly, stories are about the storyteller and characters in the story, while narratives can invite you to become part of the story.
As well as highlighting Apple’s success, Hagel also points to Nike as a good example of a brand using a narrative to its advantage.
Like Apple, Nike’s narrative is condensed into a simple slogan: “Just do it”. Hagel says it encapsulates the start of a journey, “the quest to become your personal best”.
Unsurprisingly, strong narratives and strong brands tend to go together. After Apple and Help for Heroes, the other companies ranked among the UK’s top 10 storytelling brands were all household names with strong identities, ranging from the BBC and the National Trust, to Facebook, Google and Dyson.
Empower your brand
With household names and global brands successfully harnessing storytelling and wider narratives to connect with customers, you could be forgiven for thinking that corporate storytelling is a consumer market phenomenon.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Business-to-business companies need to connect with their customers just as much as consumer firms.
And whether you are global sportswear brand or an IT services provider, you are still, at the end of the day, dealing with humans. Humans who, as the research shows, love stories.
One great example of a B2B company not only telling great stories, but placing them in the context of a wider narrative, is Tata Consultancy Services’ #digitalempowers website.
From smartphone apps helping African fishermen stay safe, to drones helping fight deforestation and save rhinos, #digitalempowers tells stories that together form a narrative showing how digital technology is a force for good in the world.
This narrative tells Tata Consultancy Services’ customers that it is a company committed to growing and improving the ways digital technologies can be used within organisations.
It is just one example of the corporate storytelling that Formative Content delivers for its clients to help them take control of their narrative and better connect with their customers.
Are you in control of your business narrative?
If you’d like us to help you create high-quality content that sets you apart from the competition, get in touch.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call our team on +44 (0) 20 7206 2687.
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John McKenna is a Senior Writer at Formative Content and an award-winning business journalist with deep specialist knowledge of energy, infrastructure and project finance.
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