7 key trends for the future of business storytelling

Marketers and brand managers must steer away from making their organization the protagonist and focus on emotional tales about real people. P.S. Tidy endings are boring.

Storytelling is experiencing a “corporate renaissance” throughout business, social media, social entrepreneurism and executive communications.

Storytelling is so much bigger than marketing. It’s the foundation of how companies communicate who they are in the world and what they stand for. A resurgence is a great thing, and storytelling itself—the original social medium for humans—is evolving in the business world. That is a great thing.

Here are seven ways to ride the next wave and reinvigorate your organization’s storytelling for more successful marketing this year:

1. Go deeper.

Many of today’s business stories are “storytelling lite”—superficial and sterile, rather than aimed at human needs.

The business storytelling of the future—successful and sustainable storytelling—must go deeper. It has to get vulnerable and real and must forgo “perfect” endings. Tidy resolutions make for crappy stories.

Sometimes stories are imperfect, like people, and that’s OK. We’ll see more brand managers and marketers getting real and vulnerable on their organizations’ behalf, which is great, because a deeper emotional connection gives a story legs.

2. Think bigger.

Business storytelling must have more of a “social change” component. Consider Toms, Patagonia or even IBM’s Smarter Planet for B2B. Storytelling must be bigger than the company.

In part, though not exclusively, this is a generational change. Millennials especially want to do business with companies that care (thankfully) about causes bigger than themselves.

Most humans do—not just millennials. People make choices based on social issues. Companies must not only care about customers, but they must also tell transparent stories about their mission and how it affects society, not just customers’ economic situations.

Thriving companies include Warby Parker, Lyft and The Humane Society. For these companies and others like them, storytelling isn’t about creating something fake just to check a box; it’s about making sure your mission is aligned with a core purpose that is bigger than your company.

Great businesses, thankfully, are always about far more than profits. It’s time to communicate that authentically through “prove it” stories.

3. Get personal.

The “corporate veil” is coming down in favor of a human frame. Many brand stories fail to capture the public’s imagination today in large part because they still portray companies as protagonists.

People don’t care about companies; they care about people.

You can’t hug or thank a company—though we’ve all wanted to slap some of them. People can’t see themselves reflected in a story about a faceless organization.

Great, emotional brand storytelling must be told through the lens of a person: a specific customer, a passionate employee or a dedicated partner. Every great company story must be anchored in a human story and told through a personal human lens. Do that, and you’ll see a big difference in your storytelling.

4. Know your best storytellers.

Great storytelling is becoming decentralized both inside and outside the organization. Story stewardship is becoming every employee’s responsibility, and it’s up to top-tier executives to keep that fire lit.

The best storytellers are often not in the executive suite. We know from studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer that customers trust people like us, and that means employees, not executives or the marketing and PR department. Yes, marketing ought to have a hand in storytelling, but closely controlling the message and who tells it can destroy value for the company rather than helping to increase it.

The best storytellers are closest to the front lines, whether in service, product or sales. Unleashing these (trained) storytellers will increase the credibility and scale of your storytelling efforts, which—as in the case of IBM, which measured this over seven years—is likely to result in increased lifetime customer values. That’s a powerful return on investment.

5. Start co-creating.

In the future, customers will have an increasingly important role in credible storytelling. Smart brand managers are already doing this; it’s time for others to step up. Some of the best content today is created or co-created by customers—another important way to engage and scale.

Look no further than GoPro for examples of fantastic consumer-generated content. Microsoft, too, has done a great job of successful storytelling through the lens of customers. For both companies, co-creating has proven an engaging way to scale story and content in a human and authentic way.

6. Solve a need.

Great B2B storytelling sells emotional and personal value, not just rational value. Emotions matter. It’s taken the B2B world a while to get on board with this concept. Some of the best storytelling today is still being done by B2C companies, but there is no reason that B2B can’t adopt that narrative mentality.

Emotional narrative is essential to great storytelling, and B2B companies can learn from Hollywood screenwriting. A few years ago, Google and CEB conducted a joint study that produced an interesting finding: Personal value had twice the weight in a B2B purchase decision as rational economic value did.

Buyers are human, and they ask, “How does this make my life better?” Real storytelling must solve a human need for the buyer.

7. Upgrade your endings.

Storytellers must get rid of lackluster endings.

Economic benefit is a terrible ending for a story. Simply telling your audience that your product will help them save or make money or time—concentrating on a rational, economic benefit—is a shallow conclusion, because it has no anchoring in a personal, emotional outcome.

“So what?” I say, and so do a lot of your users.

Shallowness is emotionally unsatisfying. Users want to know how their personal lives will improve. What will money allow them to do to achieve community, fulfillment, credibility, recognition and all the things that human beings want? Money is only a means to an end. Find those passions, and go there.

It’s even OK to have a story that is open-ended and still evolving, leaning toward hope. You can also have a business story that invites your audience to co-create an ending for themselves by sharing their stories. TOMS, for example, invites partners and customers to be a big part of fulfilling its larger mission, because the company knows that its role is evolving and that movements never happen without co-creators.

Your audience has human needs that have nothing to do with your product or service, and those needs go beyond rational, economic value. It’s your job to find what they are and tell stories that speak emotionally to those needs.

Did your product help them reach personal goals? How? Go there; it’s never about your product—ever.

A great ending isn’t perfect; it just has to stay simple and honest.

Kathy Klotz-Guest, MA, MBA is a marketing storyteller, author, comic improviser and founder of the marketing firm Keeping it Human. A version of this article first appeared on Convince & Convert.

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