Confessions of a Serial Storyteller

Storytelling Advice & Insights from Growth Hacker Kristin Luck

At our core, Dialsmith is a company that helps others tell their stories more effectively and as such, we’ve always been fascinated by great storytellers regardless of their medium. So, we got pretty jazzed when we saw this recent Fast Company article that revealed top (short) storytelling tips from award-winning, movie trailer producer (and Buddha Jones co-founder) John Long. Much of what Long had to say resonates across all modes of storytelling so we thought we’d keep the discussion rolling by asking growth hacker extraordinaire Kristin Luck, a researcher, author, frequent keynote speaker and highly regarded storyteller in her own right, to give us her take on Long’s tips and reveal some of her own “secrets” to effective storytelling.

Here’s what Kristin had to say:

LuckQ: As CMO of a fast-growing technology and services company, what role does storytelling play in how you spread the word and work to win new business?

Kristin: Storytelling played a huge role in the growth of our brand at Decipher. When I joined the firm in 2007, we had limited brand awareness (today it’s at nearly 70%!) and a premium priced service in a highly commoditized market. We had limited resources to hire a sales team so the challenge really was “how do we create a compelling story that sets our brand apart”? Ultimately, what we understood was that a company can’t rely on innovation in services or technology alone. What’s innovative today is a given in two months. The opportunity lies in pushing beyond the thinking – in thinking differently about how we apply the services and technology, so we can truly be a partner to our clients and help them think differently too.

Q: Is storytelling an art or science? Is there a Kristin Luck formula to locking in with an audience?

Kristin: Certainly there are many “formulas” for telling a story but I do believe that HOW a story is told is every bit as important. I think what is key is finding a hook between a good story and the message you’re ultimately trying to convey. Sometimes you have a good hook but it’s challenging to link it to the message. Fortunately, I spend a lot of time traveling and I had a rather eclectic childhood, so I have a lot of material to work from (much to the dismay of my family and co-workers) but the key is always to find that connection….that point where the story perfectly intersects with the message. What’s always been key in my storytelling is humor. I don’t have a lot of pride around admitting mistakes or talking about something that was embarrassing or uncomfortable (like an 80 year old guy lapping me on a trail running BACKWARDS) because being human is something everyone innately connects with- we’ve all had painfully embarrassing experiences. Maybe not an identical experience, but a similar feeling or emotion. And once you have that connection, that’s when the magic happens. That’s an authentic experience that connects the audience with you and your brand. Ultimately, branding is the story you are telling about your company.

Q: In regards to the Fast Co article about John Long and his mini-storytelling tips, how are these tips applicable to your type of storytelling and are there one or two of his tips that you use/apply most often?

Kristin: Applying the principles of brutal efficiency and distilling down the essence of your message both really resonated with me. Too often I see marketing and sales folks get bogged down in the details and lose the audience before they’ve communicated their message. It’s also important to remember that the impact of storytelling can be vastly different on stage than in print. On stage, you can take liberties with your story and use suspense, humor and body language to keep an audience engaged. In print, you only have the first sentence to grab the reader so it’s critical to hook them immediately. Or as John Long says “start fast, end big.”

Q: Thought this quote from the article was revealing, “In a way, it’s (storytelling is) about what you leave out, not what you put in…” Do you find that’s the case in your storytelling? How does research help in this regard (deciding what to say vs leave out)?

Kristin: I think what you leave out is important because it’s the essence of what defines “the hook.” You want to leave your audience hungry for information. At Decipher, it’s about creating an aspirational experience – allowing our clients to see what’s possible with our software and service solutions – and to ultimately be hired as their partner and guide. It’s about knowing what will resonate with your customers and create brand affinity- to ultimately create brand evangelists. Keller Fay Group recently released research that valued consumer word of mouth at 6 TRILLION a year.  Companies like McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Nielsen have also produced evidence that positive word of mouth is a marketer’s most valuable resource. Nothing persuades brand trial, adoption and loyalty better than a recommendation from another consumer, particularly a trusted friend or family member. (This Fast Co article goes deeper into why it’s important for brands to create aspirational experiences for their customers and provides good validation for Kristin’s point here.)

Q: Both Decipher and Dialsmith are in the business of helping communicators refine their stories and understand what is and what isn’t resonating with their audience. How can research tools like these help make storytellers more effective?

Kristin: Dial testing is amazing at determining what specific points are resonating with your target audience. It’s all about “the hook.” Dial testing was instrumental in nearly every trailer and TV test I conducted during my entertainment research years and I’m thrilled to see more marketers adopting the research techniques that studios have been using for years. The ability to dig into how consumers are reacting to your advertising content on a moment to moment basis is invaluable.

Q: What’s missing from John Long’s list that you’d add based on your experience?

Kristin: I agree with John that sometimes you can overthink the communication process. But I see more instances, at least in the research industry, where there is a clear lack of effort to distill complex findings down to simple solutions and recommendations. As researchers, it’s so important to provide context and relevance. Too often we rely on slides and slides of data to back up study findings- when in truth; all we need is the story. As more and more brands centralize market research within the marketing team, having the ability to communicate in clear understandable language is paramount to our success and longevity as an industry.

Good stuff, Kristin! Thanks for your time and for sharing your insights. Love to keep this discussion going so we’ll be on the lookout for other expert’s takes on this topic.

What are your thoughts on effective storytelling? We invite you to add your comments to the discussion.