The Power of Storytelling

Thoughts on the power of storytelling in effective communication and marketing – as told through our Spring Break experience at Disneyland.

Spring break is over! It was fun, but I confess I’m glad to be back home. Against our own foresight that it would be utterly exhausting, we eagerly succumbed to the concept of the “happiest place on earth” and set out to take on Disneyland with two toddlers in tow.

As we braved the crowds, carrying our kiddos in our arms and standing in 2+ hour lines (fastpasses were gone), I couldn’t help but laugh at myself in the moments I didn’t want to cry. I marveled at the lengths that we – and thousands of others – went to in order to share this experience with our kids. The outrageously expensive tickets due to Disney’s practically inelastic demand. The premium on every little trinket, accessory, and souvenir to mark the experience ($15 balloons! $30 ears!). The hassle. The heat. The sweat. The waits. And yet, I gladly did it all without a second thought.

This little trooper waited over two hours for the Cars ride!

Why? There are many other amusement parks with similar rides. There are countless other parks with dressed-up characters to meet. And there is certainly a multitude of vacation options that would not only have been more relaxing but also, some would argue, a better use of our resources.

But it wouldn’t have been the same – and it all boils down to the story.

.As I reflected on the why behind what we were doing (which I had plenty of time to do while waiting in line!), I was reminded that there is so much power in storytelling. It wasn’t even just the way my children were already so connected to the characters. It was also our own connection to the stories – the nostalgia it conjured up, the fond memories, the delight, and even the hope. It gave the product greater significance. It meant something more to us – to the point that we would shell out hundreds of dollars and put ourselves through so much trouble for the opportunity to partake in this experience as a family.

Given my career is in marketing, I couldn’t help but connect it to what I’m doing on a daily basis. Though I have to say, it extends beyond marketing. For what is marketing but just effective communication? To some degree, we are all marketing something at some point in time. It could be selling a product or service – but it is also just sharing an idea. Communicating a point. Fostering understanding.

Here were some of the key points I walked away with:

Stories engage. It may just be me, but I can’t help but stop what I’m doing when a great movie is playing. Or when a commercial that has an actual narrative comes on. Or, even when an eloquent guest at the wedding reception breaks up the cadence of the same old speeches to start telling actual tales of the bride or groom. To some extent, we are wired for stories. We desire resolution. We want to know what happens. There are actual models out there for what makes a good story, and the best stories of all time all tend to follow a similar structure (it’s called a “narrative arc”). And because stories engage, they capture our attention in a powerful and more lasting way.

Stories create a deeper connection. Stories relate. They inspire. They tap into our empathy. We are able to see a version of ourselves in a story. Or some truth in our experience of the world. In some ways, they help us make sense of the world. We feel connected to the characters or players and what they go through. And perhaps as they overcome adversity, we feel in some ways that we have overcome as well. As a result, stories go beyond the mind to connect with our hearts.

Stories give greater meaning. It dawned on me that while many stories may have happy endings, most of the best stories are not exactly happy-go-lucky. Even Disney, which is designed for children, is often quite dark. Dumbo is a shunned outcast the moment he is born. Cinderella is orphaned and is essentially subjected to slave labor. Simba loses a parent due to inter-familial conflict and power struggles. If we consider some of the arguably best stories of all time – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or so many of the classics, to name a few – there is a lot of darkness. Yet something about the way the stories and characters develop enamor us, bring us vindication, and perhaps even give us hope. There is an element of justice. A sense of purpose. Stories connect us to something greater, perhaps giving us a taste of how we think the world should be, in turn, gripping our hearts, visions, and imaginations.

Stories create an experience. Stories draw us in. They take us on a journey. We get to know the players, connect with them, and for a moment, share in their story in a way that it somehow becomes a part of our own experience. Their stories elicit emotion in us that gives rise to our own insights and ideas, even creating memories. And when those stories are experienced together with family and friends, it creates even more layers of becoming a shared experience with loved ones that in turn, find a special place in our hearts.

Stories change us. The best of stories impact us. They delight us. They move us. Stories have the power to distill complex concepts into something easy to digest and internalize. They teach us. They empower us. And for many of the aforementioned reasons, they give us hope. In some way, whether large of small, they leave us changed, and in turn, leave a lasting impression.

These insights aren’t rocket science nor are they new. In fact, many of the strongest brands know and do this well. But I’ve found it can be easy to forget about this concept and get lost in the facts, the features, and the data points.

Yes, we can have all the science to back up our points. We can craft a compelling logical argument. We can even build the best product. But sometimes the science doesn’t address the fear. The argument doesn’t connect to how it impacts a person. And the difference between “best” and “good enough” is just marginal in the eyes of the beholder if there isn’t something greater for them to buy into.

Ultimately, the personal connection matters. The “why” that helps us care. In the end, the story gives it all meaning.

Note to self to remember not to underestimate the power of storytelling. After all, that’s what compelled so many of us to fork over our hard earned cash and use our scarce time to wait in those lines last week.

And let me tell you, seeing those little eyes light up when they saw their beloved stories come to life, indeed, was priceless and nothing short of pure magic.

(PS – I can’t wait to go back.)

The kids were absolutely delighted to meet Eeyore and Poohbear

(and love how his big brother heart helps out his baby sister when she got a little shy)

Meeting Minnie – one of the sweetest moments ever

Priceless family time

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