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Is Storytelling Still Relevant in Today’s Marketing Mix?

By Cameron Heffernan, Director US, Mach Media

Anyone who ever caught an episode or two of Mad Men won’t be able to forget the creative, booze-soaked, evocative pitch meetings Don Draper and his 1960s-era advertising colleagues delivered. In smoke-filled and testosterone-heavy rooms, Draper would go deep into an engaging (and often personal) story to play on the emotions of his audience and bring home the account. He knew the power of storytelling, and he could churn out a good one to make people care.

Shift ahead to today. Does storytelling have the same relevance and impact in our modern, downloadable, always-on world?

You bet it does.

Storytelling may be an ancient art that has brought people together for centuries. But it isn’t disappearing anytime soon. From huddling around the fire, listening to minstrels in drafty castle halls, to today’s mobile-centric branding and content marketing strategies, humans will always seek out ways to connect and engage with others. It’s only the medium that has evolved. That evolution includes different approaches to storytelling, based on your audience and their expectations.

European vs. American Storytelling

Europeans and Americans have different cultural perspectives, different styles of communicating, and different ways of working. Can you imagine Gallic-styled “right to disconnect” legislation in any major American city? These differences naturally extend to marketing styles too.

Americans are all for brevity and clarity. Generations of Americans have been taught to: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them…” and always leave them wanting more. You’ll hear Americans in the marketing field talk about the importance of delivering key takeaways for audiences (including customers). This rings true for storytelling as well, which in the US tends to be more outcome driven, more succinct and more emotion-oriented.  

European storytelling, on the other hand, is often more chronological, rich with detail and more focused on the journey. We can’t paint all US and European storytelling tactics and styles with a single brush, of course. These days, storytelling approaches are becoming more similar than ever due to increasing globalization.

The Challenge for Native English Speakers

A 2016 BBC piece, “Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators,” reveals how those of us who speak English as our mother tongue need to step up our game if we want to communicate and work effectively with European counterparts for whom English is the lingua franca, and often a second or third language. Here are some concrete suggestions for ensuring your communication connects with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Keep It Simple

Banish obscure acronyms (OOO for out of office; ETA for estimated time of arrival, for example). Use simple, straightforward words to convey your point (walk around rather than perambulate, for example). And use global examples or reference points that are universally accessible. Colloquialisms, slang and abbreviations can lead to ambiguity for those from different linguistic backgrounds.

Tap into Emotions

Storytelling is about more than just presenting your products and services. It’s first and foremost about creating connections with people. Your product takes a backseat, as your primary goal is to establish trust and engagement by sharing stories that will captivate your audiences.

While emotions tend to be more heightened in the US (we do get excited about an awful lot of things), and Europeans tend to react more tempered to things (“that’s not bad” can be a ringing endorsement), no one wants to be bored with corporate droning on about how great your product is. So, tell stories for people, not quotas. Have a beginning, a middle and an end; introduce a hero (not you!), an interesting plot, a relatable setting, an adversary or challenge to overcome, and hook your audience with cliffhangers, emotional investment, and a final resolution.

Go Light on the Sports References

Americans (and Brits too for that matter) use a slew of sports references that have taken on a life well outside of the sport they came from. Such as:

  • Knock it out of the park (baseball; did a great job)
  • It’s fourth and long (football; up against long odds)
  • The shot clock is running down (basketball; time is limited)

These give color to everyday life and keep things interesting, but to non-native speakers who aren’t as familiar with them, such sports references and examples can be confusing. Keep it simple or explain what you mean so there is no uncertainty.

Don’t Forego the Why

If by now you’ve managed to craft a solid narrative, but you forgot to make it relevant for your audience, you’ll miss the mark. Storytelling should not be merely self-serving. Always ask yourself: “Why would someone want to read/watch/consume this?” If you can’t answer that affirmatively, it’s time for a different approach.

For European companies seeking to communicate with American audiences, it’s important that the content is relevant and pertinent on this side of the Atlantic – and vice versa. In whichever direction you are going, know that simple translations aren’t enough to truly engage people. Get to know the landscape, style of communicating, cultural and business references well enough to generate relevant, relatable content that people will not just want to consume, but also share with their colleagues, friends and family.

Compliments of Mach Media, a member of the EACCNY.