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March 10, 2020

My first year in college as a journalism major, I entered a creative writing competition. Seeking inspiration, I asked my mom about her Lithuanian grandmother and the necklace she was given by her own mother when she immigrated to America at 16 years old. I took this idea and ran with it for the competition, writing passionately about my great-grandmother’s experience of leaving her home and family, never to see them again, to go to a foreign country alone.

Looking back, I can see how my story fell flat and suffered my first harsh professional critique. One of the judges even left a note saying, “The author has little to no understanding of Lithuanian culture, and it shows.

I definitely hadn’t taken the time to actually understand what it was like for my great-grandmother, alone at 16 years old coming to America at the turn of the century or to incorporate my own emotional experiences as a teen and my relationship with my mother to create a relatable story. I could write, but I didn’t know how to be an effective storyteller.

The Art of Listening
Storytelling is more than just a retelling of a series of events or blankly reciting something from memory. An effective storyteller creates a connection to her audience that elicits an emotional response. The best way to do that is to practice active listening techniques, draw upon your own experiences, and allow yourself to be vulnerable while expressing emotion. This way, you can create a narrative that’s both impactful and relatable.

My understanding of storytelling crystallized after attending two LCD Soundsystem concerts back to back. I first went to the band’s Lollapalooza show at the main stage. We ended up in the back of the crowd, but even though we could hardly see the band, we could definitely hear them. The experience turned into a dance party that had us laughing and dancing the whole show.

Just a week later, LCD Soundsystem was headlining another concert in San Francisco, and we decided to go. We made it to the front row at this concert. The band played the same set as at Lollapalooza, but it was a completely different experience for me. I could see the technicality of the band’s performance, the way their faces looked as they sang, and the audience around us was singing right along with them.

These two points of view of the same concert allowed me to connect with other fans and bond over a shared experience from both vantage points. Both concert experiences occurred with the same surroundings, but sharing these different stories bring us closer together through empathy. That is what makes the storytelling experience valuable for both listeners and sharers.

In this same way, empathy makes a story richer. Empathy will help brands stand up for individuality and reach their customers in more relevant ways. Creating an emotional connection not only influences how a brand’s message is received, but Harvard research shows us that it leads to action as well: A whopping 95% of an individual’s buying decisions are based on emotion.

Active listening and empathy are two key components that create impactful stories. As a marketer, I’ve learned strategic ways to implement both in my work as an effective storyteller. Here are three to consider:

  1. Illustrate the Customer Experience
    Just as I should’ve mapped the journey my great-grandmother took to America to better understand her unique story, you can use this tactic to better understand your customers. Through the use of data, map out the experiences of individuals on their decision-making journeys. This will help paint a better picture of what that actually looks like for you and your team. Now you can craft a message based on that shared knowledge as opposed to reciting a stuffy data analysis of what you assume the customer wants to hear.

  2. Listen to Your Audience
    The next time that new qualitative research comes in, take the time to listen to those in-depth interviews with individual customers. Truly understanding your base on an individual level will help you see your brand from another point of view. AI can help customers participate in conversations and then provide meaningful interactions, which will garner a more valuable experience.

  3. Build a More Human Experience
    Individual human connections created through empathy are at the core of the experiences we create at RAPP. Understanding our consumers’ journeys with the data we receive allows us to respond and pivot communications to create relevant stories for a drastically better user experience.

What makes storytelling effective in marketing is the customers engaging with your brand as the storyteller. You’ve caught their attention by crafting a message from listening and empathizing with them, which fuels their curiosity about the brand and prompts them to act.

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