In Wild, 27-year old Cheryl Strayed sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail on a journey of healing and self-discovery. Her only companion is an overstuffed backpack which she nicknames “Monster”. For her audience, the metaphor is clear: Strayed is bogged down by the monumental baggage of her “story”, and her healing will come when she lets go, grieves and moves on.
Though most businesses aren’t outwardly concerned with either healing or self-discovery, when it comes to Digital Storytelling, many businesses — like Strayed — are weighed down by the baggage of misperception.
Your story is not your history. To tell stories that resonate in the digital age, strategic communicators must reconceive their story in terms of the emotional experience of their audience.
Digital Audiences crave Emotional Experience
Many of us are familiar with the myth of Narcissus, who was so taken by his own beauty that he treated others as less than he — including the beautiful nymph Echo, who was cursed by Hera, and could only repeat the last syllable spoken to her. Deprived of her voice, Echo could never tell Narcissus of her love; enamoured by his reflection, Narcissus could never see Echo’s silent beauty. Lacking real human connection, the two faded away.
Too often, we forget that the story of Narcissus and Echo is tragic; both characters yearned for an experience of connection, but took what we can call an immature approach. Similarly, users of digital media — your customers, employees or potential clients — are arriving at sites like LinkedIn hoping for a meaningful connection — whether a lead, a job or a new life.
Consider your story from the perspective of your digital audience, overwhelmed by limitless content, always searching for something new. The “content” of your story can only grab your audience for a second before they move on. And the more your story is about you, the more your audience will feel like Echo, trying in vain to make a connection while you gaze into the pond, wondering why the mirage never likes you back.
How can you reframe your story to engage your audience? You can fulfill your audience’s need for emotional experience by thinking of your story as your audience’s experience of your story.
Uncover the Emotional Heart of your Story
In 1992, Dove’s key marketing benefit was its purity relative to other soaps. Check out this ad to see how they marketed purity:
Litmus strips and ladies that lunch. Not exactly Oscar winning storytelling.
In 2003, however, Dove’s creative agency had an enormous ah-ha moment. They asked, why is it important that our customers use pure soap? And the answer they arrived upon? Because purity makes us feel beautiful. This was the birth of the Dove Real Beauty campaign.
Here’s one of many heart-engaging spots from that campaign.
That’s a pretty major transformation from litmus strips.
Because web users are by definition solitary, the language of the Internet is emotional experience. So by reorienting their story from logical, left-brained facts to right-brained emotional experience, Dove created an ideal campaign for the digital era.
There are thousands of examples of similarly successful campaigns — produced both by big brands and small time creators. The much-used term ‘authenticity’ is a stand-in for genuine emotional experience.
How do you discover the emotional heart of your story? By working on what your story represents, not the facts of your history.
Healing Stories are Open-Ended Stories
In 2010, sex columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because of their sexuality. Though it would have been easy to vilify the bullies or call for stronger legislation, Savage and his husband asked people to submit videos encouraging LGBT teenagers that their lives would improve as they matured. Within months, the project had thousands of submissions from people of all sexualities, including one from President Obama.
This is a perfect example of an open-ended story: one that illuminates, without pontificating. Instead of rallying support for a predetermined solution, the project invited its supporters to participate in the solution. Inviting participation created an atmosphere of engagement, empathy, tolerance and inclusion.
In other words, participating in the solution is the solution. Community-wide participation in tolerance and empathy is the emotional experience that It Gets Better represents.
Many online storytellers think of themselves like politicians, pontificating their judgements out to the faceless web. These stories leave no room for audience participation: the audience can either scream “Yes, we’re with you!” or “No, we hate you!” In both cases, we end up just like Echo, repeating the same phrase endlessly, without getting the experience of real connection. But a business who conceives of their story as open-ended — constructing intriguing questions that inspire imagination and curiosity — will never fail to engage audiences.
Questions like what is beauty? what is justice? what is truth? what is love? are by nature ephemeral. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the journey is the destination. It Gets Better as long as we keep telling each other that it gets better. That’s not positive psychology. That’s a fact.
Which questions will engage your audience in the emotional experience of what your product represents?
Healing Stories are always Transformational Journeys
In 2010, I left Vancouver, Canada to walk down the West Coast of the United States. That’s me on Day 155. If you’re going to San Francisco…
On my 316 day walk, I learned time and again that healing stories are always journeys. It was a journey for Cheryl Strayed to reclaim her identity. It’s a journey for us to move past that old job, partner, living situation or outdated sense of ourself.
Think of what a journey it must have been for Dove to decide to give up the litmus strips!
When you set out to tell a story that engages your audience’s emotions, you must first travel that emotional landscape yourself. Recognizing your journey is the start of your journey. To use emotions effectively, we must be able to empathize with an ineffable experience within ourselves.By speaking from the place of our own perspective on the universal, we’re able to be authentic. Emotions are a storyteller’s palette.
Dan Savage was able to tell LGBT teens that it gets better because he was an LGBT teen that experienced it being bad, and then getting better. So were many of the 50,000 people who submitted videos. Maturing our attitudes to sexuality is a universal human experience. Your story is the map you’ll make from travelling that previously untrodden land. Your audience’s reward is the opportunity to reap the benefits of your transformation by following your map.
Take the Digital Storyteller’s Journey
One key difference between old and new media is that you, the Digital Storyteller, have your audience’s attention over time. Presumably, your business will have a social media platform from now until the end of your business, which means your audience’s relationship to your brand will mature as both you and they do. With your digital strategy reconceived as an open-ended question, you will act as a guide for your audience’s curiosity. Intimacy and emotional connection will be the result.
Those embarking on the Digital Storyteller’s Journey are like Cheryl Strayed, strapping Monster to her back, setting out on a path with uncertain rewards. It’s a path that will require you to see your business as a map towards your audience’s emotions, and your story as a process of constantly discovering your story.
Like all great pilgrimages, you’ll discover that the path is already waiting for you to start.
Are you ready? Do you hear the Digital Storyteller’s call?
Jordan Bower is a Digital Storyteller based in British Columbia. He leads organizations, businesses and individuals on a journey to the heart of their story — helping them create deeper, more authentic connections with their audiences. A featured workshop facilitator at events like the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York City, Jordan is currently producing Momentum, a serialized podcast about his 3,000 km walking journey from Canada to Mexico.
His website is www.jordanbower.com.