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Jennifer Aaker: The Seven Deadly Sins of Storytelling

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Jennifer Aaker: The Seven Deadly Sins of Storytelling

A Stanford GSB professor of marketing explains why engaging your audience is key to success.
Two women facing each other reading stories

Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, writes, "Right-brain dominance is the new source of competitive advantage." Tapping the right side of the brain allows for deeper engagement by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do this? Tell a compelling story.

Before you craft your story, ask yourself: 'Who is my audience and what is my goal in engaging them?'
Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing

Before you craft your story, ask yourself: "Who is my audience and what is my goal in engaging them?" Are you persuading someone to invest in your company? Are you trying to sell an idea to your co-workers? Do you want to inspire people to help a cause or save someone's life? Start with a deep understanding of your audience, and ensure your story has a clear and powerful meaning — to them. Then you can set to work honing it for maximum impact.

While the reason you are telling a business story may be quite different from the reason you tell a story at a party, the same techniques apply. Too often, company stories come across as dry and flat because they fall prey to these seven deadly sins:

1. Chronology

Unless you're telling the story about the proper assembly of an IKEA bookshelf, your story probably shouldn't begin at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc. Events need to build, one after the other. Your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion, but not necessarily in the exact way that the audience expects.

In practice: Does your marketing campaign build on ideas, feelings, and passion, or does it feel disjointed and disparate? Tie each marketing event together as an outcome of the previous effort. Connect your brand with a story that is exciting to be a part of.

2. Telling

Show, don't tell, is the most fundamental maxim of storytelling, and for a good reason. Your audience should see a picture, feel the conflict, and become more involved with the story — they're not receptacles for a series of facts. If you tell a story as though you were not there, it distances your listeners. Describe what is happening as if it were in front of you. As Mark Twain said, "Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream."

In practice: Go to the page on your company's website where you describe what you do. Does your "About Us" section include only lists and categories? Is the information purely factual or are you using stories to help illustrate who you are?

3. Jargon

Filling a story with technical terms, acronyms, and superfluous words will only serve to lose or bore your audience. Hippocrates (medicine's oath-of-ethics author) wrote: "The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words."

In practice: Visit a website in another country in a similar market that has to be translated by your browser. This is an experiment to show which terms and phrases lose translation across language. Try another experiment with a visit to a business targeted at an age bracket above and below your own. Notice that the best businesses speak well to all of their target markets.

4. Pulse-free

People connect with other people, so make sure you focus on the real-life characters of your story. It doesn't matter if your organization designs computer hardware or sells medical devices, human beings are still driving the action. So concentrate on the people involved. Personalize the protagonist of your story, making him seem real enough so that the audience feels a stake in what happens next.

In practice: Who is the face of your company? People connect with people they see as real and can relate to. If your company does not have a face, find one. Introduce him or her with a bio, experiences, a role, and a challenge.

5. Fabrication

Your story needs to be authentic. A major cancer center in Washington asked a customer named Audrey, who happens to be a triathlete, if they could use her photo in a cancer awareness campaign. When the bus and magazine ads appeared, much to Audrey's surprise (and her large network of friends, family, and fellow athletes), she was positioned as a cancer survivor.

How much more powerful would this campaign have been if the featured image was that of an actual cancer survivor? For everyone who knows Audrey (or heard her story), this reputable institution now has tarnished credibility. The power of appealing to emotion is detailed in Wharton professor Deborah Small's groundbreaking research. She shows how the use of statistics by nonprofits, as opposed to a vivid "identifiable victim," results in lower giving. People want to hear and be moved by real stories.

In practice: Make stories a part of your organizational culture. For example, insist that staff meetings start with a story instead of a progress report. When a story is built for your business, evaluate it as if you were the person the story is about. Does it convey your story accurately?

6. Bulletproof

Engaging stories do not chronicle a straight line to success. Imagine if Rocky won every fight … yawn. Hone in on your protagonist's problems or barriers to achieving her goal. What is standing in her way? By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend authenticity to the story.

In practice: Tell stories that don't always have the optimal ending. This is tied closely with sin number 1: Chronology. Not every story ends perfectly, but it sets the stage for the next chapter that will bring it to a climax.

7. Proprietary

Companies with a stranglehold on what the corporate story is, and who can tell it, miss a world of opportunities, especially at a time when social media makes it easier than ever to connect and share. Stories told by employees and by customers are significant assets. Recognize the value in stories from internal and external sources, design ways to collect them, and allow your customers, advocates, and employees to be storytellers also.

In practice: Create an internal story bank, or database of stories, where employees and even customers can write and submit stories complete with titles. These stories can be keyworded, so that people looking for stories can easily find them. Employees searching for stories can reach out to the authors. Nike, Apple, and eBay harness stories as tools to crowdsource ideas, such as what consumers are really passionate about. They do this as a way to give employees language and initiative to tell personal stories of meaning, and to amplify and distribute brand initiatives in story form.

This article is based on material from the book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media To Drive Social Change, by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith. Effective storytelling is also the topic of an online course, The Power of Stories to Fuel Innovation, offered through the Stanford online certificate Program in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

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