The Illuminating Power of Brand Storytelling

If you’re running a purpose-driven company, your success will largely be determined by the quality of the stories you tell.

Update, 13 July 2020: One moving story can have a greater impact on people’s perceptions than reams of data and expert opinion. Nothing I know of demonstrates that more movingly than this one. 13-year-old Charlotte Figi died on April 8, 2020 of pneumonia, complicated by Dravete Syndrome. Thousands of families are better off today because of CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta’s coverage of Charlotte’s struggle and triumph. She was able to live the normal life all children deserve for her last seven years, and having told her story many times, I was greatly saddened to learn of her passing. You can read Gupta’s moving tribute here.

If one thing changed the conversation about medical marijuana it was the story of Colorado’s youngest medical cannabis patient.

Little Charlotte Figi suffered from around 300 seizures a week due to a crippling, treatment-resistant form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. With complications escalating, each day could have been her last. Only out of desperation did her rather straight-laced parents turn to cannabis—and finding a doctor willing to issue a script to a five-year-old was a hell of a challenge.

Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.

When her story went public in 2013, however, Charlotte was down to a couple of seizures a month due to a strain of cannabis nicknamed “Hippy’s Disappointment.” Because it doesn’t get people high, parents and healthcare providers aren’t as squeamish about it as they might be. (This strain, renamed Charlotte’s Web, is given to pediatric patients orally as a concentrate.) Over the next couple of years, hundreds of families with children suffering from Dravet Syndrome and other severe epileptic disorders relocated to Colorado to gain access. The press called them “medical refugees.” A number of public figures including CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta endorsed medical marijuana, reversing their earlier stances. Public acceptance surged.

Charlotte’s influence on public perceptions has two key lessons:

  1. More than rhetoric, hard facts and subject experts, stories have the power to change people’s opinions and priorities.
  2. Chronic disease is a powerful emotional trigger, especially when children are affected. While decades of evidence from esteemed scientists in Israel and Europe fell on deaf ears, one little girl’s experience with a stigmatized drug captured national attention. It also spoke louder than the combined testimonies of many adult medical cannabis patients which tended to be ignored or dismissed.

Before Charlotte’s story went public, the idea of giving a product derived from cannabis to a child would have been seen as cavalier under any circumstances. Now FDA-approved trials for cannabis therapies are taking place down the road at Children’s Hospital in Denver. People talk about cannabinoid therapy—medicine derived from the cannabis plant—for their pets, parents and, in some cases, children without batting an eye.

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If facts are the backbone of a well-crafted argument or business pitch, stories are the heart.

We greatly overestimate the extent to which facts and logic influence those around us. This misconception is reflected in the language used in board meetings, business presentations, marketing brochures, websites and other contexts. While we expect people to listen to reason, the reality is that stories drive behavior. Stories move people.

“We tend to use the word story casually, as if stories and narratives were ephemeral decorations for some unchanging underlying reality,” writes author Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code (a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in leadership or management). He continues,

The deeper neurological truth is that stories do not cloak reality but create it, triggering cascades of perception and motivation. The proof is in brain scans: When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brain light up, translating words and meanings. When we hear a story, however, our brain lights up like Las Vegas, tracing the chains of cause, effect, and meaning. Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.

(emphasis added)

Shouldn’t facts matter anyway?

We sometimes dismiss anecdotal arguments as anomalies—or worse, as emotionally-manipulative. Yet with the hand guided by pathos (emotion) that actually makes most of our decisions, we shove past one another in our eagerness to act on well-told stories. These stories may place us in support of or opposition to political or social causes or they may involve trivialities like household purchases.

When I say we’re less rational and more emotionally-impressionable than we give ourselves credit for, I’m not being critical or cynical. Our penchant for being moved by stories is something we can celebrate (although we must recognize that it can also drive us towards the wrong decisions).

In the end, hard facts matter a lot. But if you want people to remember you, to clearly grasp your purpose, and ultimately support your business or cause, framing the conversation.

I help purpose-driven entrepreneurs elevate their marketing through storytelling, humor, and clear strategic messaging.

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Posted on: April 14, 2018