Content marketing is all the rage. But with the focus squarely on social and SEO, businesses are losing sight of the ‘S’ that really matters: storytelling  

Growing up, my parents never believed a word I said. Granted, I did tend toward exaggeration and probably still do. One should never let the facts get in the way of a good story (just ask Donald Trump).

The rise of fake news – apart from signalling our civilisation’s downward spiral into oblivion – shows the limitation of facts and figures. In this day and age, cold hard logic only gets you so far. More important is the broader narrative it feeds into.

Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. By telling stories we build friendships and find lovers. We entertain and are entertained. Stories help us place our lives in a more universal context and, in so doing, find some existential meaning (maybe).

What’s this got to do with business?

I cut my teeth at a big WPP PR agency where storytelling played second fiddle to schmoozing journalists. I’ve run press offices and marketing departments where any sense of an overall narrative was often squashed by day-to-day spin doctoring and internal politics.  

I then took a five year sabbatical to write screenplays for Hollywood production companies. Touchpaper was formed to bring some of those lessons back into the world of marketing communications.

Success in business is all about developing mutually beneficial, long term relationships with people (rather than the companies they work for).

At the same time, marketing is about motivation. We want people to take action, for example to buy something. Or we want them to change their behaviour or perceptions.

There are two ways to motivate people. One is to manipulate, lie, coerce or bribe. 

Torture, too, though this is generally frowned upon by clients.

It can work, as we saw all too often in 2016. But the effectiveness is limited and short term and it brings with it all kinds of negative consequences.

Far better then to aim for empathy – to create a shared emotive connection. The idea is that people invest in the long term success of your business because they have an emotional stake in it.

Unfortunately, most marketers don’t do empathy, especially in a B2B environment. More often than not their marcomms is bland, corporate and vanilla.

b2b; marketing

FT journalist Lucy Kellaway was famous for her Golden Flannel Awards – an annual celebration of PR guff. My favourite from this year was the global MD of design company Ideo, who asked a question to which we surely hope never to hear the answer: “How do we activate insights around latent mobility or multimodal needs?”

We should instead aspire to the example of  Wan Long, the Chinese meat magnate. He once uttered the clearest sentence ever spoken by a CEO: “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.”

Inspire, value, connect

Too often we forget we’re talking to people. Human beings with desires, needs, baggage and – yes – emotions. People want to be inspired. We want to feel valued, to be part of something.

The language of storytelling is vital. Anyone can write in vague, dull corporate-ese with terms like ‘value-add’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘premium’. But it pays to be different. Few businesses talk in a language that people want to listen to or read. Be professional, yes, but don’t be afraid to set yourself apart.

Stories connect people to a company which would otherwise seem cold, dry or outlandish. We need to cut through the chaff to find the essence of what makes your business interesting.

This is true now more than ever. Anti-bribery laws and normalisation of global business mean that loyalty needs to be earned, not bought. We’re talking to you, Rolls Royce.

Digital platforms create myriad new communities in need of visionary leaders. And a new generation – the much maligned Millennials – value attributes like integrity and community as much as they do money and long term security.

The Three Pillars of Storytelling

Every good business story does three things:

1.     It communicates a Big Idea, giving people a reason to pay attention.

2.     It brims with a personality your customer will warm to.

3.     It paints a picture of a better life and explains how the business will help you achieve it.

By presenting a vision of a better world, and convincing people you can lead them there, you invite customers to go on a journey with you.

This creates a long term relationship, with your organisation cast in the role of a visionary leader. By inspiring trust and loyalty, you’ll find customers soon start recruiting new followers on your behalf.

Stories are a wrapper…for a message…that drives action

The cold hard logic found in facts and figures only gets you so far. To clinch the deal you need to spark an emotional connection with your audiences/customers.

Stories have a message – obvious or otherwise – that cries out for a behavioural change in whoever’s listening, reading or watching. Whereas facts and figures educate, stories inspire action.

And the best, quickest and easiest way to create shared empathy between humans is the same as it’s always been. By telling a story.


Simon Bates is co-Founder and content director at Touchpaper.