“Storytelling” in marketing isn’t a new idea

Just as each generation believes it’s the first to discover the joy of sex, marketers and managers who stumble upon the power of storytelling often believe they’ve unearthed an extraordinary innovation.

In reality, they’re simply learning what generations of their predecessors already knew and successfully employed.

I chuckle every time I see a marketer promoting storytelling as a novel approach. Frankly, storytelling is nothing new. It’s a time-honored tactic that patiently awaits its opportunity to re-emerge every decade or so at the hands of someone who presents it as original.

Marketing and advertising are largely driven by fashion. A seemingly new approach or channel becomes a fad, and is quickly embraced by people who proclaim it’s the best thing ever and everything else must be hopelessly outdated. “This is different!” they shout. “This breaks all the rules!”

What we call “storytelling” today is what we knew as “copywriting” a generation ago. The recent discovery that “authenticity” improves connections with prospects and customers is exactly what copywriting legends like David Ogilvy, John Caples, and Joe Sugarman recognized and employed decades ago.

Why is telling stories such an effective way to sell? It’s part of human evolution. Thanks to our ancestors, we’re wired to pay attention to stories. Whether it’s children listening to their favorite Dr. Seuss tale, adults catching up on the latest office gossip, or the family histories provoking laughter at holidays and funerals, what anthropologists describe as the oral tradition continues to be our favorite channel for information. When we know a story is coming, our ears perk up. When a coworker says, “I gotta tell you what happened to me this weekend,” they have our complete attention.

The same thing happens when a company or an organization starts to tell us a story. We’re instinctively drawn in and we do our best to block out other messages.

Now, those stories aren’t quite like the others. Sometimes they’re the tale of how a new product came to be. Sometimes they’re a case study in which we learn how the company helped someone do something important, thereby demonstrating what they might be able to do for us. And sometimes they’re just an explanation of how something works.

Do they seem authentic? The good ones do. They don’t make promises or scream with hype and hyperbole. They share problems, situations, and other things that are real, so we’re able to relate to them. They offer genuine ways to get to know these companies and organizations, making us view them more favorably.

Most of all, because they don’t sound like what we think of as advertising, we’re less skeptical and far more receptive to the messages.

Sharing authentic stories about your company, organization, products, or services is a particularly effective way to connect with the audiences that are important to you, and that’s been the case for decades … possibly even millennia.

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