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What does the wall of storytelling noise mean for brands?

Recent estimates suggest that the average Brit spends almost nine hours on media devices every day. In that time, each of us is exposed to 5,000 marketing messages and more than 100,000 words trying to convince us to do something. Welcome to the world of information overload, quantified.

This ever-increasing wall of noise in our always-on world has forced us to become incredibly skilled at filtering out irrelevance and paying focused attention to relevant information only. In Nate Silver’s memorable phrase, we’ve redeployed our information processing skills to the digital era to separate the signal and the noise. To cope – to survive – to overcome the barrage of stuff that simply doesn’t matter to us, today more than ever we abandon content that is it not immediately accessible and engaging. And this is forcing brand custodians to create ever more compelling and relevant words that resonate with current and prospective consumers.

How do we do this with most impact? Through story. Where five years ago “content is king” rang out through marcomms departments and agencies, that appeal has started to sound hollow. Storytelling’s where it’s at now for brands and corporations – B2C and B2B – if they truly want to engage with their consumers, customers and stakeholders, inside and outside their organisations.

More and more businesses are embracing story and the power of storytelling in their corporate and brand communications. The skills of the storyteller are much in demand to turn passive observers into full-bore advocates. Businesses around the world are adopting the tools and techniques of those who tell stories with most impact: Hollywood scriptwriters, novelists and poets.

On the one hand, this is about adopting story structure – the narrative arc, heroes, villains, struggles and redemption – to engage readers emotionally as well as rationally. Two of the best podcasts to cover the role and impact of storytelling on brand communications, one from either side of the Pond, are the Business of Story and Getting Goosebumps. To be recommended.

And beyond narrative structure, to create stories that are signal not noise, business writers need to write better. Simpler, clearer, with more impact. Less sector or industry-specific jargon, fewer abstract nouns, and fewer and shorter words. Fewer words per sentence, fewer syllables per word. They need to write and tell stories like one of the best creatives comms has known, Dave Trott.
Every year, an organisation called the Society for Storytelling runs an event to celebrate the power and impact of story, in the form of National Storytelling Week. This year, the week runs from 30 January until 6 February. Stories will be told in clubs, theatres, museums, schools, hospitals, spoken word venues, and care homes around the country. It’s not about corporate and brand communications, but for businesses looking to cut through the clutter, it certainly should be.

So to mark National Storytelling Week, we at Insight Agents asked researchers at the University of Sussex’s Innovation Centre to ask those responsible for brand storytelling to tell us what they find gets in the way of effective storytelling. We chose retail as a vibrant representative of UK plc. Our research identified that the three principal barriers that hold back corporate and brand storytellers from telling impactful tales about their brands are: consistency, jargon, and authenticity.

Consistency: particularly consistency across channels, with multiple stakeholders responsible for different elements of the marketing mix. Whatever sector of business a brand inhabits, clear and consistent messaging across all channels is vital in providing an authentic, believable and coherent customer experience.

Jargon: innovation is driven by R&D and technical divisions, and those responsible for innovation are reluctant to have their explanations – as they see it – dumbed down by comms and marketing folk. They fear the complexity and nuances of their innovations will be lost if they’re expressed simply and jargon-free. What we know is that insisting on jargon is the fast-track to turning listeners off.

Authenticity: truly authentic brands tell a consistent story at every touchpoint. Brands – especially in retail – like Burberry. And, of course, Apple. They’re memorable because they connect with us both rationally and emotionally. This is significant because this approach enables us to identify with their message or mission as a reality we inherently trust.

Through this sixteenth National Storytelling Week, we’ll be taking a look at each of these issues in detail over at our blog, providing insights into the challenges faced by those responsible for telling their brand’s story. With each challenge, we offer our own advice on how to overcome the barriers to joined-up brand storytelling. We hope they help you to become better storytellers.

Article written by Sam Knowles, Founder & MD of corporate and brand storytelling consultancy Insight Agents.

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