Last night, we gathered some brilliant, accomplished men and women to discuss the role of narrative in connecting and influencing people. Their backgrounds included design, film, theatre, marketing and innovation. Their perspectives and ideas related to the role of narrative in brand building were profound and practical. Below is a short recap of some of our favorite moments from the panel and a brief bio about each participant.
We often leave narratives and stories at home.
Kristian opened the panel by asking the audience which of them deal with stories at home. Unfortunately, when he asked his next question about which of them deal with stories at work, too many hands go down. He explained that human beings are inherently storytellers so denying this aspect of ourselves is neither healthy nor productive for our careers. For ideas to successfully thrive and influence an organization or an audience, we must package them as narratives.
Is it a narrative or is it a story?
After a discussion about how each panel member defined narrative, Sharon defined the difference between narrative and story. Sharon argues that though we use them interchangeably, they are distinct ideas. A narrative is about the relationship between people or parties. A story, she argued, is the layer on top of that. It is a form of communication and expression that makes the narrative something we want to connect to.
On virality and authenticity
Though many marketers want to go viral, our panel argued that virality should not be the goal. Michael offered that for truly valuable virality, the stories must be authentic. It was the authentic stories that people connect with most deeply. Those stories reveal something about the characters. Raphael added that human beings are very good at detecting when we’re selling to them. So an inauthentic story can fail very quickly. But a bit of transparency, such as when Lebron James tells you he won’t tell you to drink Sprite, can make a sales story more authentic.
On using a brand’s savory and unsavory history in its story
Building authentic connections includes leveraging one’s history. Raphael called out a banking institution’s recent marketing response to unethical lending behaviors. He noted that the campaign was direct and clear in its apology and promise to be better. Raphael didn’t flock to the brand but notes he’s willing to see if they will keep their promise in the months that follow. Dan noted many ignore their history, especially their failures, in an effort to seem perfect and that this leads to a more than imperfect relationship. He encouraged the audience to own their failures to create a genuine personality for customers to connect to. No one is perfect, he admitted.
On the other hand, Anna felt that there should be some discernment in how much a brand airs its laundry. She noted that marketing has the goal of creating an aspirational brand for its consumers. Publicizing every organizational failure may not be necessary. She agreed with Raphael that brands should apologize when warranted but communicating every organization failure, such as an underperforming campaign or a failed product launch, isn’t critical to build a meaningful relationship with customers.
Lesson for creating better narratives
Anna described the book Deep Work by Cal Newport as one of her recent gems that transformed her approach to her work. She noted that many of us do surface level work, bouncing from task to task without much meaning or reward. Deep Work, she shared, demonstrates the value of spending time with a single idea, such as a narrative, in order to truly produce something great. The results of this type of work were more creative and more engaging than producing a quick tweet, post or video on the fly.
Raphael encouraged the audience to not worry about what you think the audience wants to hear. Focus on telling a meaningful story. In his experience producing films and videos for corporate audiences, he has observed that when a microphone is in a person’s face, they suddenly lose their sense of empathy and all skill in storytelling. They want to sell, offer data and overturn objections. His advice is to get back to the story and share it with an authentic voice in the way only you can.
Narrative heroes we admire
Raphael admitted his goal is to emulate the skill, talent and impact of Ava DuVernay. He acknowledged the impact DuVernay is having not just on film as a black woman, but on society. She produces stories that are engaging, human, and emotional in an industry dominated by white men. Raphael hopes to transform audiences through his own films, and encourages his students at DePaul to think about the narratives they want to change.
Sharon admitted to having too many heroes to count but was able to share her admiration for Ai-jen Poo. She described Poo’s work has bringing an intimacy, clarity and honesty to domestic workers who are often invisible in our society. Poo’s ability to portray individuals in such multidimensional richness adds to the complete story. They challenge our perception of who they truly are.
On marketing’s denial that other emotions exist
Sharon noted that of the breadth of emotion available to the human mind, most marketing focuses on humor alone. In this, she feels, we lose the real beauty of human relationships and a real opportunity to bring people on a journey. Kristian added that one reason for this is the idea that positioning keeps brands stuck in one spot while consumers are completely dynamic. He encouraged the audience to think of their brand narratives as accompanying the consumer on the many emotions that come with their personal experiences. Anna added a campaign by Patagonia, known as Worn Wear, which shared the stories of its most loyal consumers who have owned Patagonia gear for decades. It told of loyalists patching, repairing and otherwise wearing it despite the tears and frayed edges. (It turns out, Patagonia featured Sharon’s story of her fleece hoodie!)
How do stories work when it’s between two business?
An audience member asked how stories work when the parties are both businesses, such as B2B industries. Anna, with her experience at Fooda, a lunch delivery business, quickly jumped in to say that there really aren’t any differences between B2B and B2C stories. She shared that building personas for Fooda’s target businesses followed the same process when she built them for consumers. You have to go to the businesses, get to know the people, and then build a story for them. Dan built on Anna’s comments to remind the crowd that no business exists without its people.
How do I convince a client to embrace a story that isn’t meant for them?
This question from another brilliant audience member moved into the practicalities of selling narratives within an organization. She explained that in her role in PR, she often has to provide a story for her client to share with others who may be nothing like her client. This distance between her client and the intended audience creates a challenge in determining whether the story would be effective.
Sharon recommended bringing the audience’s stories to the client. Make them clear and evocative. She noted that in her role as a UX researcher, taking her clients into their customers’ homes often had the greatest impact. Short of that, capturing videos of them speaking and sharing their own stories. This, she summarized, shortens that distance and creates empathy between the two. Raphael agreed wholeheartedly adding that video is a powerful empathy tool.
Kristian added to the discussion by explaining that as a tool for teaching, stories are the most powerful. He encouraged the audience to think about not just the final story, but the layers of stories they may have to manage. In this case, she may have to present the speech as a story but then also be ready to present a story instructing her client how to embrace it, what it will feel like, and what the results will be.
Make your customers the heroes
To close, Kristian explained to the audience that the best authors, producers, and content creators find a way to get their audience to empathize with the hero. They bring them into the story in a way academics describe as narrative transportation. He criticized many brand managers think about how they can tell a story about their brand and all the wonderful things they do. Instead, he encouraged the audience to think about how their brands can create stories that make their customers the hero, that bring them into the story and find the ways their lives might be transformed.
To get invited to more panels like these, and to get more great ideas about branding in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.
Raphael Nash is a Chicago-based independent film & television producer, director, and adjunct professor at DePaul University. He is the CEO of Endangered Peace, Inc., a film & video production group that works as both a video production service, and independent film company. As a video production service, its clientele ranges from Marketing/PR Agencies, to Educational Institutions. As an independent film company, it has funded and produced several youth-centered award-winning short films and documentaries.
Dan Salganik has been a passionate entrepreneur and business owner since his sophomore year in college. Since then, he has launched his newest venture to-date, VisualFizz, a full-service digital marketing agency, which was built to connect emotions & experiences back to digital marketing. In just over a year, Dan and his Co-Founder, Marissa, have worked with unique clients in industries including: Non-Profit, MedTech, Automotive, Real Estate, SaaS, and much more…
Anna Furmanov is passionate about creating the connection between consumers and a brand or product, understanding human behavior, and how companies can better people’s lives through innovation. She has ten years combined experience in management consulting, marketing management, and consumer growth marketing (currently focused on consumer retention at Groupon). She has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management and speaks about Growth Marketing topics, most recently at Kellogg to a mix of students and alumni from six top business schools across the country.
Sharon Bautista is a Chicago-based user experience researcher and designer. She is currently on the Firefox team at Mozilla and has previously led UX teams both agency-side and in-house. Sharon speaks regularly and teaches courses on topics related to human-centered design and organizational change. In her free time, she volunteers with organizations that promote inclusion in STEM including the Girl Scouts and i.c.stars.
Michael Mellini is the Communications Coordinator and Copywriter at Goodman Theatre. He has worked as a contributor for Broadway.com, Thrillist Media Group, Chicago Tribune, RedEye, Newcity, Where, IN London, The A.V. Club and Ship to Shore Productions. He holds a journalism degree from Indiana University. More info at Michael-Mellini.com.
Kristian Alomá sees the world in story, believing that the more we understand our narratives, the more we understand the world and our place in it. After 15 years helping some of the world’s best products become brands and nearly a decade of academic research, he founded Threadline to help tell those stories. He is currently finishing his PhD dissertation on Narrative Psychology.