It’s my observation that in producing information about our products or services, we don’t convey it in the format we most like to consume it in. I’m talking about using the form of a narrative or a story. Here are a few brief thoughts about why and how stories are an important element in your marketing messages.

At the heart of all great ads are products with a story. One campaign that does this well is Apple’s “Mac vs PC” series. The “PC” is represented by a bland guy in a suit, who boasts about his utility, while the “Mac” is characterized by a hip jean-wearing guy who can not only do the same things, but do them EASILY. Notice that the PC character’s pitch lacks soul, but everything about the Mac persona says style, confidence and coolness. Promoting yourself with facts makes you end up looking like the PC whereas crafting your story can make your product as likeable as the Mac.

Advertisers use an abbreviated form of storytelling because they know it’s too hard to create a new concept in the mind of a client. What’s easier and more effective, as advertisers know, is reinforcing those ideas which already exist.

Ideas-in-story-form is popular in today’s bestselling books. Books on convoluted social phenomena rarely make for bestsellers, yet three of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers) have all been #1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. Perhaps one explanation for this is his excellent knack for storytelling.

Communicators in all mediums have achieved success by using stories. Here are some famous story-based creations, each using a different medium, that suited the message their author was conveying:

stories_better_tellingAesop made up a fable to warn about pride
Plato examined justice through a dialogue
Dante wrote a poem to capture theology
Shakespeare used a play to probe vengeance
Machiavelli’s correspondence described power
Martin Luther King’s speech imagined racial equality
George Orwell’s allegory revealed Communism’s flaws
Charles Atlas used an advertisement to extol bodybuilding
The Wachowski brothers punk’d philosophy in their movie
Marvel’s Stan Lee drew about xenophobia in comic books


Stories engage our brains. If you read an instructional book and a work of fiction, you may fully appreciate both of them, but if I asked you to tell me what they were about, you’d find it simpler to explain the fictional book. Why? because it contains universal themes and plots with patterns that our brains instantly absorb and retain. Since that’s how our brains are wired, it only makes sense to create messages that use those principles to get our ideas planted into our audience’s minds.

Our brain’s right hemispheres are made for stories. When the left side of the brain takes in data, it simply makes intellectual connections, but the right hemisphere of the brain isn’t concerned about sorting fact from fiction, it doesn’t know or care about the distinction. Whatever the right hemisphere connects to, no matter how fantastical, it looks for emotional connections. When it finds them in a story, it gives that story much thought and better commits it to memory. That’s why stories are more memorable.

Stories provide whole information when there’s only partial understanding. The work of explaining technology seems to be helped by storytelling because it doesn’t describe complex product but rather tidy and comprehensible concepts, such as the concept of a tool. Once that’s done, it ties the concept to a universal story theme, like problem-solving. People get a sense of the product (as a tool that solves problems) and can later go back and better understand the detailed information of how it works, since the story already gave them a general idea of what it aims to do. In education, this concept is called “Instructional Scaffolding” and it’s widely used at the beginning of many courses of study.

I’m not the only person who says stories are good. Here’s some other books touting the use of narrative and creatively expressing ideas:

image credit: JunkbyJo on Flickr