Very few people were familiar with MJ Hegar until the Democratic nominee for Texas’ 31st Congressional District racked up more than 4 million views on a campaign ad that went viral and propelled this combat veteran and mother of two into the spotlight.
What was the secret behind her viral fame? A clever campaign video entitled “Doors.” The ad tells Hegar’s life story using the metaphor of doors—the doors that have been shut in her face by the military and political system, and her fight to kick them open as a female combat pilot. While her background and experience made her a strong candidate to begin with, this personal narrative and moving story made her candidacy even stronger.
Why we love stories
Since the beginning of humankind, humans have had a special connection to storytelling. In fact, our brains are hard-wired for it—when we hear stories, we produce the hormone oxytocin, which helps enhance our sense of empathy. We also tend to retain stories in our memory better than facts or logic. Jennifer Aaker, social psychologist and author of The Dragonfly Effect, conducted an informal study where students were asked to recall business pitches made by their fellow colleagues. Only 5% of students recalled statistics cited within pitches, while 63% remembered the stories.
In business, stories can be powerful tools for connection, persuasion, and motivation. They can help to attract investors, market your brand or product, and align your team around a shared purpose or goal. People are substantially more motivated by an organization’s transcendent purpose—how it improves lives—rather than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services). The most memorable brands are all known by the stories they tell, whether it’s Airbnb’s founders renting out airbeds to earn extra rent money for their San Francisco apartment, or Salesforce’s numerous customer success stories.
Crafting your company’s stories
While brainstorming ideas for the stories that will define your business or brand, start with the “six-word story” that distills a narrative down to its primary theme. For example, at Creative Business our six-word story is “Creatives don’t like math. We do.” For Hegar’s campaign ad narrative, it might be something like, “One door slammed. I opened another.” Using your six-word story, expand the narrative to have a beginning, middle, and end. According to Aaker, successful stories have four important characteristics:
Goal: Why are you telling the story in the first place?
The goal is defined by where you want the audience to go, and what you want them to do, feel, or think. It’s also important to know where the audience started. This can help you to set the context and guide them more clearly to the end goal.
Grab attention: Why would the audience want to listen?
To grab attention, you’ll need to find and highlight the story’s hook. This could be a shocking statistic, a dramatic pause, or a funny joke.
Engage: Why would the audience care?
Engaging stories are compelling, relatable, and authentic. It’s even better when a story has a protagonist that must undertake a journey or overcome some sort of obstacle or advertise to accomplish it their goal. Such story arcs encourage the audience to care about and empathize with the main character.
Enable action: Why would the audience want to share the story?
Your organization’s story should inspire the audience to take some sort of action. This action could be to buy your product, invest in your company, or rally your team. It’s important to be clear about what you want your audience to do—make it easy for the audience to take action and don’t leave them guessing on the next steps.
Build storytelling into your business process
Companies should all start with one great origin story that tells where you came from, what you’re doing, and where you’re headed. You should also be tying in your overall vision, values, and purpose. But you shouldn’t just leave it at that—build a collection of stories that explain different aspects of your company, including innovation stories, personal leadership stories, and user stories. You’ll also want to tailor your stories based on your intended audience. Talking to investors? Integrate powerful data and statistics into your narrative. For customers, turn the focus onto them—make them the hero of the story which will allow them to picture themselves as the protagonist. Looking to inspire your team and employees? Lean on the emotional elements of the story and focus on mission and purpose.
Stories can also be used as part of the day-to-day work process. Jeff Bezos from Amazon famously got rid of PowerPoint presentations in meetings in favor of narrative memos. Simply put, bullet points don’t have sticking power, but stories do. Stories will also evolve as your business evolves. A great origin story may need some tweaking or even a rewrite if you want to make a company pivot. You may also find new stories to tell as your business and customer base grows. Make it a point to reach out to customers and employees to find unique success stories that can amplify your brand.
By integrating storytelling into your business process, you’re ensuring that you’re keeping your company aligned with your core vision and values while also building a lasting brand.
A version of this post originally appeared here.