The power of storytelling

Putting the power of story to work for you

by Beatriz Terrazas, IMI co-founder, three decades media experience, winner 1994 Pulitzer Prize

There’s something about a well-told story that evokes an emotion in a reader or viewer. That emotion can cause a person to laugh, cry, have a change of heart, or take some kind of action. Never did I witness this power of story more than when I worked at The Dallas Morning News. There were two memorable instances in which the power of story caused people to act.

A story about a family

The first was a story I wrote about a child who was severely injured in an accident. His family was very poor and despite doctors’ opinions to the contrary, his parents believed he would one day regain full use of his brain. In the afternoons, they rode him up and down the street in a wheelchair so that he could enjoy the sunshine with his siblings. The day after the story ran, my voicemail filled up with messages from callers who wanted to help this family. Particularly poignant was the woman whose voice choked up as she said her kids had emptied their own piggy bank and could I please tell her how to get the money to the family. I couldn’t keep up with the callers who wanted to help. No sooner would I note names and numbers than my voicemail was full again. When all was said and done, readers raised more than $12,000 to help this family.

A story about peaches

The second story was about peaches. This one was a profile on a local family who sold the fruit seasonally directly from its orchard just east of Dallas. No picking of un-ripened fruit transported in refrigerated trucks to your grocery store; just sun-warmed fruit straight from the orchard to your table. After the story ran there was such a rush on the family’s country store that one day cars were lined up for what might have been a full mile on the highway waiting to turn into the store.

What did these two stories have in common?

Two very different stories, but both caused people to do more than just read. But why? And how? Those were questions I asked myself then because I never expected these reactions from readers. But with the benefit of hindsight and by thinking carefully about my own enjoyment and experience with stories, I better understand how and why these stories that touched readers’ emotional cores. There were, in fact, some very basic story elements at play—elements with which we’re all familiar:

Archetypal story structure: We are wired for story. Ever since we heard our first fairy tale, we understood that storytelling is a primal way to communicate. Stories have a structure we get--a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end. They open with something—an action or a problem—that invites us to go along on a journey and find out what happens next. The action and tension is such that it compels us to keep reading—or in the case of visual stories—to keep watching.  

Interesting characters: The most compelling stories have characters with whom we identify or empathize. Certainly parents who love their children could identify and empathize with the parents in the story about the injured child. And even those of us who aren’t parents can imagine what it must be like to risk losing a loved one.

Emotional connection: Parents reading the story about the child understood that to see their own children seriously injured would be among the most painful situations they’d ever go through. This triggered an emotional connection to a set of parents they didn’t even know—and a desire to help them.

With regards to the peach story, who doesn't have childhood memories of biting into sun-ripened fruit and feeling the juice dribble down their chins? Instagram and other photo apps have turned us into a nation of foodies who like to be reminded of our earth-to-table connection and shop local whenever possible.

There are other elements that contribute to the power of story, but these three were most influential in readers' reactions to these two pieces.

Why should I care?

Why does this matter to brands and companies? For a couple of reasons, at least. First, as I mentioned earlier, our brains are uniquely primed to understand stories. Secondly, because we’re living in an era of shortened attention spans, you need some powerful tools to keep your audience captive. Storytelling remains among the most powerful tools at your disposal. Combine the basics with visuals and you could have some potent video marketing content.

I'll leave you with a final thought and a fun example of powerful storytelling. There were some interesting visual stories among the Super Bowl 50 ads. But my favorite happens to be the Budweiser commercial from 2015 featuring the Clydesdales and the lost puppy. Remember that? Classic storytelling structure: interesting characters (noble horses and a cute puppy) and a big problem (puppy gets lost) keep us watching. We want to know: will the puppy survive the dangers of the harsh world to make it home? 

Every brand has stories that can engage customers or clients. Let IMI put the power of storytelling to work for you. See more of our work here