Beyond once upon a time: dialogue and the art of storytelling 2.0

by Michelle Gunn, PhD, VP/Creative Director, 17 Apr 2018

Storytelling has seen its share of attention over the last handful of years. It’s headlined the marcom conference circuit. It’s taken up a position alongside “authenticity” and “transparency” on many a Buzzword Bingo card. It conjures up a not-entirely-inaccurate tableau involving bearded, bespectacled hipster types sitting on stumps and strumming banjos as they read aloud from Oscar Wilde and inhale honeysuckle nectar from handcrafted steampunk vape pens. For example.

But, for all the bluster and ballyhoo that comes with it, is storytelling—as a strategy and as a discipline—being done the right way? How do you harness its power and potential for your brand? And perhaps most important, what is the next iteration of storytelling?

When it comes to brand experience and engagement, storytelling is a fine start. But it’s far from enough. Here’s why.

Telling a story is a one-sided enterprise.

When you tell a story, you establish a binary relationship: There’s you, the one doing the telling. And there’s the audience, the ones doing the listening (and hopefully not the checking of the Instagram or the writing of the grocery lists). When it works, it works well. Provided you’re blessed with a largely frictionless environment and a receptive audience, traditional performative storytelling can be a both appropriate and effective approach.

But what happens when, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, you find yourself failing to communicate?

At its worst, storytelling can feel narcissistic. A story told poorly to the right audience, or told well to the wrong audience, can come off as salesy and spammy, alien and inauthentic. It runs the risk of leaving the audience feeling antagonistic, even hostile. Cue the rotten tomatoes. 

Dialogue represents a collaborative effort.

Dialogue offers an evolution of storytelling—a more complex and nuanced approach that places your audience squarely within the story. It relies on a shared context, setting the stage for an interaction that’s symbiotic, dynamic and often entirely unpredictable. By its very nature, dialogue establishes an environment that’s hospitable to emotional connection and, in turn, action.

Look, it’s not just squishy stuff; it’s science. Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural mechanisms involved with communication, particularly in response to external stimuli like storytelling. His research suggests that the brain activity of the storyteller is replicated (or “coupled”) in the brain of the listener. “The stronger the neural coupling between interlocutors, the better the understanding,” he explains.

But the magic of neural coupling doesn’t happen every time you tell a story. Not even every time you tell a good story. “This alignment depends not only on our ability to understand the basic concept,” Dr. Hasson observes in a related TED Talk. “It also depends on our ability to develop common ground and understanding and shared belief systems.”

In other words, neural coupling happens only when there is solidarity and reciprocity in the relationship between the speaker and listener. They’re engaged in a mutual exchange that foments deep emotional connections and, in turn, a greater degree of engagement. The story, then, becomes something more complex and sophisticated; it becomes a dialogue.

Here’s an example. A month or so ago, I was puttering around the kitchen when I heard from the living room a few strains of a song that immediately catapulted me back to 1990. The Pixies’ indie anthem “Here Comes Your Man” anchors a TV spot for Citi, which features an aging Gen Xer mindlessly pushing a shopping cart across a supermarket parking lot. Inspired by the chorus, the man jumps onto the edge of the cart and coasts across the asphalt, his youthful spontaneity revived (if only for the moment) by his parking lot joyride.  I was positively transported.

:30 Citi TV Commercial, “Joy Ride.”

The time of day (dusk) and the costume cues (button-up shirt, blazer jacket) imply his identity as a professional; clearly, he’s knocking out the grocery shopping on the way home from the office, as I have done at least twice in just the last week. But even more vital to the story was that quiet, fleeting gesture of rebellion inspired by the soundtrack of a joyriding, freewheeling youth. Everything about this spot—from banality of the parking lot to that transient moment of defiance—felt as familiar as my own pulse. I even recognized the rickrack edifice of the Super A Foods as the actual store where I bought ramen and couscous in college.

In short, this character’s story is my story. And mine is his.

Now. Is the story well told? Sure. And would a story without these nostalgic cues have inspired the same frisson of recognition? Probably not. After all, the soundtrack and geography of my youth managed to converge (almost too conveniently) in a commercial for my highest-balance credit card. But this spot offers more than a sentimental story. It offers common ground. I participated emotionally and experientially in the narrative that Citi shared, going so far as to give it a shout out on Facebook. It’s that shared context that elevates the spot from story to dialogue, from action to interaction.

Dialogue reveals (and fixes) potential problems.

Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, recommends that storytellers engage in some “back and forth” and with the audience as a means of “negotiat[ing] a shared context before telling a story.” I’d take it a step further. What she suggests involves more than icebreaking or casual research. Rather, the very act of engaging in dialogue reframes the original story, altering it so that it’s more collaborative and ultimately more successful.

Simmons also notes that dialogue has the capacity to “reveal gaps in understanding before they cause a problem.” It serves both as a diagnostic tool, underscoring potential areas of miscommunication, and a remedial tool, allowing you to make adjustments on the fly.

Dialogue allows for more diverse content types.

By now, most marketers are comfortable with the fact that content type helps to shape the message we share with our audience. Stories emerge through words, static images and dynamic media; powerful stories often engage all three. But those stories can grow even richer and more compelling when they involve content that demands the user take an active role in creating a shared experience. These content types can be as simple as a survey or Twitter chat, or as robust as user-generated content. Either way, they allow the audience to collaborate in the creation of the story—so they can internalize it, respond to it, manipulate it and make it their own.

The popular photoblog and social project Humans of New York (HONY) has proven particularly adept at using different content types for maximum emotional response and engagement. The project began in 2010, when an unemployed photographer, Brandon Stanton, decided to create a photographic census of 10,000 arbitrarily selected New York residents. “Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them,” explains Stanton. “And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.”

The stories that has Stanton captured are remarkable in both their particularity and their universality; they’re at once impossibly idiosyncratic and relatable. But I think that part of what’s so captivating about the series is our ability to talk to one another about the subject—and even to talk back to the subject him- or herself. Social media affords us the opportunity to elevate the discourse from story to dialogue. In several instances, HONY’s Facebook followers have succeeded in shaping that dialogue in concrete ways.

For example, in 2013, Stanton interviewed a local photographer who shared that he and his wife wished to adopt a child from Ethiopia, but lacked the money to do so. Stanton quickly launched an Indiegogo campaign on behalf of HONY and, within 90 minutes, the crowdfunding site surpassed its $26,000 goal. The contributions—most of them in $10 increments—made the adoption possible. In this case, then, the dialogue has transformed the original story in the most profound and joyous of ways.

Today, HONY features stories from more than 20 countries. These micro-documentaries are available as blog and social media content, as well as two bestselling print books and a video series. At this writing, the series has more than 18 million followers on Facebook alone.

The bottom line.

Storytelling is a performance—one that’s essential to the successful articulation of any brand. But the spotlight needn’t be such a solitary place. Because, by inviting the audience to contribute their voice(s), we as marketers permit both the story and the telling greater dimension, and greater potential. The rigid roles of speaker and listener begin to fall away, replaced by a relationship based on reciprocity. In turn, the shared emotional connection between both parties grows more dynamic, more genuine, more fully alive. Therein is the true value of dialogue. And as far as I can tell, there’s no industry buzzword quite as satisfying as that.




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