The people in our lives best known for their storytelling skills used to be our grandparents. Sometimes, they were that rare teacher and instructor in school who used to be amazing at weaving stories. But barring them, there were few storytellers we knew. There might be many people telling us stories but few were storytellers. But today the realm of storytelling is changing. There is pride in being known as a weaver of stories.

It’s beyond doubt that storytelling has immense power as a tool to make people believe in an idea. For different kinds of professionals, different reasons are fuelling the storyteller phenomenon. In the fields of education new research findings are suggesting how well information can be understood and assimilated when told in the form of story.

Human resource management and businesses are increasingly looking for wisdom in age-old myths and legends to motivate people. In the world of brands, content marketing and storytelling are touted as the future.

In fact, a brand’s success and its ability to tell powerful stories have never been correlated as strongly as in current times.

In the case of journalists, the resurgence in the idea of storytelling could just be a claim to relevance amidst the changing external media environment.

Specifically, in the case of marketers, the hype around storytelling stems not as much from any newfound novelty in the idea but largely a response to the impending challenge in vying for audience attention. Marketing, like many other practices, has undergone changes since the beginning of the last century. Here is a basic journey of storytelling in marketing.

Phase 1

Marketing’s forays into storytelling began in the early 20th century. From simple product information and posters, the storytelling in the limited formats of print and radio were considered good enough for marketing and advertising a product. The product title and description of what it does were enough. There was little story, it was a board without any story. There were no heroes and no conflicts. Life was simple for the marketing storyteller.

Phase 2

As variety in products and services increased, the demand for better consumer communication and demand for better stories climbed.

The era was dominated by an art of advertising which author and brand expert Jonah Sachs terms as ‘inadequacy approach’. Inadequacy approach of marketing refers to the form of storytelling which follows the three steps of:

1. Conveying a problem

2. Creating anxiety around the problem

3. Introducing the solution which gets fulfilled through the product being advertised

In the context of India, consider the case of stories being propagated by many fairness creams.

Conveying a Problem: Fair skin is crucial to recognition and professional success.

Create Anxiety: Rejection is the most likely possibility if you are not fair.

Magic Solution: Application of the ‘product’ which helps you become fair and attain success.

This is the story which most products and brands followed. From consumer durables to real estate to automobile, many product categories based their storytelling on this approach. Some decades into this kind of story practice and people started to find problems in this approach. People started realising that these kind of marketing stories are based on immature ideas of insecurity and greed. Research in psychology and human behaviour saw the emergence of “values” guiding the new marketing stories. The idea of a story based on higher values started gaining ground. To have a marketing story not talking about the product benefits and features began to be considered acceptable. Apple’s Think Different advertising and the ‘Real Beauty’ ads of Dove can be the perfect example of how impactful marketing stories based on real values can be.

Phase 3

With the arrival of the internet and availability of numbers, marketing started to see some change. The internet brought a novel and more measurable medium into the environment the stories operated.

‘Half of my advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half’ is a statement attributed to many marketers. In the pre-digital media days, story impact measurement was a big challenge.

The mass media available was not adequate to to understand effectiveness. Things changed with the advent of the internet.

When the availability of numbers and the success measurement metric made the Excel sheet the single biggest tool to understand marketing performance, the subjective idea conveyed through a story became secondary to those green and red boxes on the Excel sheet. When the demand to earmark a number or data to ascertain the story impact started growing, it became clear that just having a good brand story is not enough.

The exact measurement of it and then growth in the numbers started taking centre-stage.

After all, how can one improve something if one is not able to measure it tangibly?

In this environment, no story could escape the quantitative scrutiny of its impact. Since, at any given point of time there will be far fewer good stories than mediocre ones, quantitative evaluation becomes the most acceptable form of story impact measurement. The same yardsticks are applied to good stories too whose impact might be bigger than that which the numbers can capture.

This made the life of storytellers a little challenging as they did not just have to weave a good story but also think of the demands of the medium and the performance evaluation which follows.

Number savvy started becoming synonymous with business savvy. But not all marketing problems got solved. Engaging the audience remained a problem.

So some decades into the practice and the storyteller has started to rise again. This rise of the storyteller is certainly not a revolt or antithesis to the idea of this world perceivable functioning on numbers, but is surely a phenomenon to offer new meaning to itself.

Stories today being created by marketers are supposed to move people to think and feel a certain way. So numbers and data might be becoming powerful day by day, but so is the rise of the storyteller.

The new media are allowing marketers to tell better and complete stories. No longer is a storyteller constrained by the limitation of an earlier medium where he was forced to connect with the audience in 30 or 45 seconds.

The new platforms, along with access and easy usage of technology, are allowing the marketing storyteller to tell compelling, longer-format stories. Combined with the idea of big data and multimedia tools available, it can fairly be said that success in marketing would favour one who can tell a good story based on the numbers.