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4 Pitfalls of Storytelling and How to Avoid Them

4 Pitfalls of Storytelling and How to Avoid Them

David Aaker

Companies must avoid four common missteps when making stories the cornerstone of their communications​​​

During a volunteer session at San Francisco-based nonprofit St. Anthony’s Dining Room, I heard many facts, but also a story that I’ve repeated dozens of times: A client left his engineering job to care for his wife, who had cancer. Their insurance ran out, and by the time she died six years later, he had sold his home, depleted all his savings and seen his engineering skills wither. He needed St. Anthony’s. It could happen to anyone. The statistics faded quickly, but the story stayed with me.

In this digital age, brand perceptions and relationships affect how customers, employees, partners and others evaluate their options when making a purchase, applying for a job or collaborating. It is critical for brands to communicate not only their offerings but also the purpose and heart of the organization. This task is made difficult by limited budgets, a glut of content and audiences that are disinterested and skeptical. 

Signature stories—authentic narratives that intrigue, involve and communicate who you are—break through distractions and disinterest to change perceptions, inspire and generate memories. Hundreds of studies have shown that stories are two to three times more effective at conveying a message than reciting facts. 


What is stopping organizations from making stories the cornerstone of their communications?

1. Don’t Believe and Don’t Commit

Getting organizations to believe in and commit to storytelling is a huge barrier to using stories. Many businesses make the comfortable and convenient assumption that their audience is logical and believes, as they do, that knowing facts about the brand’s offerings is both useful and worthwhile. That is rarely the case. More likely, the audience will ignore such messaging, and if it gets through, they will usually forget or distort it. 

2. Impact Stories Cannot Be Found 

Even when brands commit to elevating stories in the communication mix, it’s hard to come up with truly powerful stories. There is no checklist of effective story characteristics, but effective stories are built on interesting, empathetic and authentic people who are facing some kind of challenge that involves uncertainty, tension and, ideally, a surprise ending. Look for a plotline that is so entertaining, informative or awe-inspiring that the audience will feel compelled to pass it along.

Brands with utilitarian offerings must develop higher-purpose programs to feed their stories. Soap brand Lifebuoy developed three stories of how its hand-washing program helped children survive in three Indian villages. Video stories documenting the effort garnered 44 million views. 

3. Weak Presentation

Even strong stories can be rendered ineffective if poorly presented. Don’t rely on a customer or employees without professional experience to create a story. A story that is badly edited, confusing, incongruous or unpleasant to the eye will be difficult to amplify. 

A frequent error of storytelling is a lack of specific examples or details. Detail that makes the story vivid and intriguing will draw people in. Knowing the personality and motivations of a character can help the audience empathize and understand the challenges he or she faced.

Be intriguing at the outset. The story should grab the audience’s attention with the opening line or moment. Consider a story that begins, “It was a drab and rainy day in mid-May 1931 when the 28-year-old Neil McElroy, the advertising manager of P&G’s Camay soap, sat down at his Royal typewriter and wrote perhaps the most significant memo in modern marketing history.” What did the memo say? Why was it important? Who is this guy? What happened to him? You notice. You read on. You remember.

4. Mismanaged Story Program

Some storytelling programs are mismanaged. One indication of mismanagement is a lack of support staff to find, curate and refine the stories. One of the best users of stories, UC Health, has a team of seven people to support its story program. The team finds stories by hanging out with doctors and the story stars (patients at UC Health) before they create presentations. 

A huge problem, especially for firms that have avoided the first three pitfalls, is story overload. There is a tipping point after which there are too many stories for employees to manage or for customers to grasp. Organize your stories by message and prioritize stories by their level of influence. Stories can also be combined into meta stories. Molson Beer’s master story about creating a hockey rink in the Purcell Mountains for people who would do “anything for hockey” was surrounded by stories of the building challenges, the people selected to play and the final game. 

Signature stories can transform wasteful, ineffective communication programs, but organizations must overcome these four pitfalls to fully take advantage of them.

David Aaker, sometimes called the Father of Modern Branding, is the author of 18 books and over 100 articles on branding and business strategy. He is the Vice-Chair of Prophet, a branding, growth, and transformation consulting company.