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Business storytelling: what brands can learn from Hollywood

Storytelling – it’s not just for drama. Students from our Story for Business course have been learning this, and in the second instalment of our chat series with business storytelling strategist Park Howell, he discusses how he developed his unique business, how different cultures react to the same stories, and what the world of business can learn from Hollywood.

Q – Hi Park, thanks for joining us for this second round of questions. How did you go about building your portfolio of story clients?

Park Howell – No problem! I’ve been in advertising for 30 years. Our middle son went to film school in South California, and he is currently a motion graphics artist in Hollywood while trying to sell his feature film. While he was in school, I asked him to send me his textbooks when he was done with them, so that I could learn what Hollywood knew about storytelling that we could use in the dark arts of marketing. That was in 2006, and my knowledge and clients have grown from there.

Q – If you are creating material such as a pitch package for a small company looking to market to bigger players, is the best narrative approach still to think of the foundation myth/hero on a quest structure?

PH – I don’t know that I would categorically say it’s the myth/hero on a quest story. It’s certainly a quest story, because almost all of marketing is, but I think it could be any genre of story. It all depends on the audience, and what resonates with them. I’m careful to not get pigeonholed into any one genre until I know who I’m talking to.

Q – Which businesses do you think are using storytelling techniques particularly well at the moment?

PH – Well – in America anyway – you find the best brand storytellers are in consumer marketing. Companies doing this well are PatagoniaApple, of course, FedExSonos, to name a few. You inherently find more passion, and therefore stories, in the consumer market, compared to what appear to be boring B2B professional servers. REI did a brilliant job of brand storytelling with its #optoutside Black Friday campaign.

Q – When considering marketing over different platforms, does the story have to fit the media type, or should you attempt to keep the narrative consistent throughout all materials?

PH – The channel is everything. You have to think about how your audience uses the channel, what kinds of stories will work, how to make your product more relevant and useful by how it is portrayed on the channel, and how the story you are trying to tell works in the social media world of your audiences. The most important thing, though, is empathy. If you can’t connect with your audience, they won’t connect with you, or the protagonist you place in your story.

Q – Do you think that people who come from, or have experienced, different cultures make more effective storytellers?

PH – I’m not sure that they do, because we are all storytelling animals. I believe that storytelling is the one true superpower we all possess, and that it’s not as much a cultural thing in society as it is the micro-cultures we were brought up – family and education – and the business culture we currently find ourselves in.

Q – Is your Story Cycle approach to business storytelling something that works as well in non-Western cultures as Western ones? Is there a cultural difference that means storytelling needs to be adjusted in some way if you were doing business in, say, China or the Gulf States?

PH – The Story Cycle was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, which I’m sure you know is a universal structure for story that is represented in all cultures since the beginning of recorded time. Therefore, I hypothesize that the Story Cycle works across all cultures. This was underscored to me in 2011 when I presented it to 3,500 international executives from 140 countries, who gathered in Washington DC for a sales conference. I held the room for two hours, taking them through the process, and it seemed like it was hardwired into their thinking. The client told me it was one of the most popular workshops they had given in years. I don’t think this is because I’m particularly mesmerizing. I think it’s because the human mind yields helplessly to the suction of story.

Another great book to read is by Jonathan Gottschall called The Storytelling Animal: Why Stories Make Us Human, and I also have a resource library on my site of all of the literature and videos that have helped shape my approach to the business of storytelling.

Q – Park, you have been amazingly generous with your brain and resources, and this is a fascinating discussion, which I think will have resonance beyond this space.

PH – It’s my pleasure, thank you all. It’s been an honour to visit you today.

Story for

Use the science and psychology of storytelling to motivate, engage and unite employees.

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