Storytelling is an art many leaders fail to grasp – not so for Charity: Water's CEO

10 min read

20 April 2016

In our digital world, “storytelling” has become a marketing buzzword, but many marketers, business leaders and brands have failed to grasp what it means to tell a compelling story and the power it can summon.

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Storytelling is about more than talking at people; it’s about cultivating a community that becomes invested in the higher message of a brand. By developing a better understanding of storytelling, you will be able to start implementing a more effective business strategy.

When we look at a company we often analyse numbers and statistics, filing over quarterly reports to arrive at some objective and informed conclusion as to how one can best expand business and increase profitability.

Surprisingly, the art of storytelling is often overlooked. Yet, some of our most adept modern business leaders are, at their very core, exceptional storytellers. Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are a case in point, and have used the creative power imbued in storytelling to set their products and services apart from their competitors.

In the weekly Ph.Creative podcast series, “Getting Goosebumps,” we’ve been lucky enough to speak to some incredible business and marketing professionals, along with award-winning screenwriters and expert story coaches. Our guests come from all walks of life, but are unified by a common passion for storytelling.

One of our audience’s favourite guests is Charity: Water CEO Scott Harrison, the man behind the non-profit organisation that brings safe drinking water to millions of people around the world. Scott and I discussed how authentic storytelling can help businesses achieve their goals.

Authenticity elicits emotion

When Harrison decided to leave behind his high-flying NYC lifestyle in favour of a two-year trek through poverty stricken West Africa, he brought with him one item that would prove pivotal to the success of his story: a camera. Stocked with tens of thousands of images, Harrison, upon returning to NYC, was able to use these visual elements as a launching pad for his business.

With a clear vision, he used the medium of storytelling to shed light on the lives of thousands of marginalised individuals and communities, telling their stories first-hand.

Harrison reminisced: “I shared 500 photographs with 15,000 people – so it wasn’t a kind of dry narrative – they were aggressive pictures. Every couple of weeks I would be blasting [them] with a story of villages without clean water, or a story of someone who’d arrived on a ship blind and after cataract surgery was able to see.

“I think it’s important that you know my whole journey has been very visual. I’m someone that understands and feels when I see things.”

Storytelling allowed Harrison to change the public’s perception of giving to charity, steering his audience’s thoughts away from traditional charity advertising. He began invoking emotion and rationality with honesty and authenticity. As Harrison emphasises: “We see the world through stories, so it’s not going to be numbing statistics that move people towards compassion and generosity.”

It’s telling that stories driven by a compelling philosophical and emotional argument are likely to draw acclaim. For Harrison, success hinged on the ability to tell a simple, effective and emotionally engaging story – and it could be integral to taking your brand to the next level too.

Images: Charity: Water

“The vision was to reinvent charity, [but] the biggest problem was the story around money. People would say charities are black holes… if I give one hundred bucks maybe only $10 actually makes it there. From day one we’ve used 100 per cent of all public donations to directly fund these water projects,” he said.

It’s this facet of Charity Water’s story that Harrison pinpointed as pivotal to their success. Whether your company has 5,000 people or five, identifying the stories behind what you do creates a common message and provides a call to action.

Read more from Bryan Adams:

A social world

Humans are social creatures by nature, but the advent of social media in the last ten to 15 years has blessed us with an unparalleled opportunity to share and relate to others.

Social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and, more recently, Snapchat and Instagram, allow for quick, rapid dissemination of stories across the globe.

We’re all now familiar with the term “viral.” It’s important to remember that social media is about an exchange of interactions among people, not one authority telling everyone else what to think. This concept returns to a seminal function of storytelling: using the craft as a bridge to invite people to become part of your journey.

Harrison agreed that social media allowed him to develop Charity Water’s story into one shared by millions across the globe.

“Social media was just such a natural way to tell our story. I invited myself to speak at Twitter and we became the first charity to get a million Twitter followers. When we heard of Instagram we were the first charity to use it,” he revealed.

“We love social because it allows us to tell our stories in a visual way. It’s a combination of curiosity and looking for stories that really speak to, not our values, but our partner’s values. It’s thanks to the generosity of a million people around the world who have made this their story and have done something about it.”

Continue reading on the next page for the science of crafting a story, which can be compared to delivering a good joke.

Image: Charity: Water

The science of crafting a story

Imagine that creating an interactive story is like crafting a good joke. Your story should consist of description, anticipation and a killer punchline; this is the natural call to action for your audience, asking others to share an experience. Science, in fact, has proven how effective the components to a good story can be.

Scholars at Princeton ran an experiment on the power of storytelling. A woman was placed in an MRI machine and asked to read the same story – first in English and then in Russian. The story was recorded onto a computer and her brain scans analysed.

In a separate setting, a group of English-speaking volunteers listened to each story, while also hooked up to an MRI machine. When listening to the English version, every single person’s brain activity synchronised with that of the speakers, but, switch to Russian, and this “brain coupling” disappears.

The results conclusively show that effective, emotional storytelling will align complex brain and thought patterns, which means each “individual” becomes part of a collective whole that shares the same experiences.

Image: Esther Havens

This concept is central to Harrison’s success. His story was so compelling and so moving that when he spoke to people about what he had seen in Africa, every single person could understand his plight and wanted to join him on his shared journey. It should be a basic-taught principle in business schools across the globe that the craft of storytelling is often a crucial decider in the success or failure of your business venture.

Tell your story

Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, an established marketing professional or working at the local newsagents, if you have a goal and a vision to see your dream through to fruition then anything is possible. By fusing elements of storytelling into your narrative, you give yourself a much better chance at captivating the minds of others.

We’re all surrounded by stories. In fact, our lives are nothing more than a string of stories woven together by that magical mistress we call time. Once you realise the power inherent in effective storytelling, you have the potential to revolutionise the way you recruit talent, develop your business and shape the world.

So, tell me… what’s your story?

Bryan Adams is the CEO and founder of digital marketing agency Ph.Creative