5 ways to infuse emotion into your storytelling

Avoid deluging your audiences with information, no matter how cerebral they might be. Woo the hearts, and minds will follow. Here are key takeaways from our conference at Disneyland.

How to infuse emotion into storytelling

Will AI take your job one day? Not if you tell emotional stories that connect audiences to your brand.

So says Miri Rodriguez, Microsoft storyteller and keynoter at Ragan’s “Brand Storytelling and Content Marketing Conference” at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

“AI will be writing bestselling books by 2024,” she told more than 250 rapt listeners in the Mouse House, “but we can separate and elevate our stories by focusing on human empathy.”

Here are five insights from the Disneyland conference to help you do just that:

1. Key on people’s core needs. “Storytelling isn’t opinions, data, facts or assertions,” says Rodriguez. “It’s also not posting content on social media and calling them ‘stories.’”

Instead, it’s the emotional transfer of information through character, plot and conclusion. “When it’s done right, dopamine fires and it prompts action,” she says.

The movie “Coco,” she says, “inspired my son to act. He wanted me to buy him a guitar right after watching it.”

Her advice: Reach audiences through their hearts rather than going straight at their heads. “Ask yourself instead what emotions you’re seeking to evoke,” she says.

If you’re faced with an information dump, recalibrate by recalling the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. Your overriding message will be more actionable and memorable if it touches on fundamental requirements such as safety, love, belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

2. Don’t be the hero. “When choosing your topic, start by asking who the story is about,” Rodriguez says. “It shouldn’t be about you.” That’s where many communicators misfire.

“A good story is where we can see ourselves in it, not the brand,” she says. “It’s an experience we can empathize with, and empathy starts with understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from his or her point of view rather than our own.”

This means framing your customer as the hero in your story. The product or company can help the hero achieve his or her goal, but it’s not the star of the show.

3. Build empathy as a soft skill. Storytelling requires empathy, but it’s not always a primary attribute among content creators.

“I suggest conducting an empathy workshop with your team and then building on that,” she says. “At Microsoft, for example, we constantly ‘hit pause’ and ‘zoom out’ with employees by allowing them to express themselves. We start meetings with, ‘How are you feeling today?’”

The takeaway: “We must remind ourselves of our humanity before we do our jobs,” she says.

4. Seek to inspire, not sell. The idea of emotional storytelling continued with the conference’s second presenter, Jessica Lange Hollister, director of communications at The North Face.

“We once got a brief from our execs to ‘sell more lady pants,’” she says. “We knew we had to go deeper—so we focused on how we could inspire women.”

“Our research showed that women weren’t interested in having problems pointed out to them,” Hollister says. “This was right after the election, so we wanted to flip the narrative and empower them to feel like explorers in their everyday lives. We wanted the concept of being an ‘explorer’ to apply to them—not just our athletes doing crazy things in amazing places.”

The result was North Face’s successful “She Moves Mountains” campaign.

Sales of women products “went through the roof,” she says. “But that wasn’t the real goal. It happened because the campaign empowered women. It was timely, and it was emotional.”

5. Always put people first. Rodriguez and Hollister were the wellsprings of this notion, but it clearly flowed freely through the conference attendees, who responded with enthusiasm.

“I’m inspired by what Miri and Jessica shared, because I work with fighter jets and the F-35,” says Brittany Galloway, communications specialist at Lockheed Martin. “Our mission is to tell the story of our jets and how they relate to our customers.”

She’s now thinking more about how to spotlight the pilots’ personal stories to resonate with Lockheed Martin’s audiences.

“It’s more about doing this for the customer, not speaking at them,” she says. “We believe pilots are able to execute their missions, defend their country and come home safely to their families and friends every time because of our technology.”

Now that is an emotional story worth telling.


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