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Storytelling in Arts Marketing

Updated: May 17, 2023

by Lisa Mackay

The concept of storytelling in marketing is not new. Most marketers instinctively understand the power of a well-told story and would love to include it in our plans - if only we had the time and resources for a video project! However, storytelling can be incorporated into every aspect of marketing the arts, not just videos. If you spend the time at the beginning of a campaign to pin down the story you want to tell, the materials will flow together much more smoothly, and be that much more effective.

There are several reasons why storytelling is a compelling basis for marketing and communications:

1. Storytelling is how we understand the world. A human mind is essentially a pattern-seeking machine, looking for repeating structures to sort through the millions of pieces of information we encounter each day. Jon Haidt, psychologist at NYU-Stern says, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” In an article for Scientific American, Jag Bhalla writes: “It is in our nature to need stories. They are our earliest sciences, a kind of people-physics. Their logic is how we naturally think. They configure our biology, and how we feel, in ways long essential for our survival.” Stanford University conducted several studies on this point and found that when people listened to pitches, either containing facts and figures or a story, only 5% recalled a statistic, but a whopping 63% remembered the stories. Stories made facts and figures 22x easier to remember. And who doesn’t want to be memorable?

2. Storytelling unites your audiences and brings people together. Story connects us. Children, adults, all of us everywhere can use the magic of story to find aspects of ourselves in others, and of others in ourselves. Poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: “The universe isn’t made of atoms. It is made of stories. When we learn someone else’s story, it shifts the fabric of our being. We are more open. And when we are open, we connect.” This speaks to something called the Belongingness Hypothesis, coined in 1995 by Baumeister and Leary. They proposed that human beings have an almost universal need to form and maintain at least some degree of interpersonal relationships with other humans. According to the theorists, belongingness is an innate quality with an evolutionary basis, and would have clear survival and reproductive benefits. As you hear a story unfold, your brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller, says Uri Hasson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University. When he and his research team recorded the brain activity in two people as one person told a story and the other listened, they found that the greater the listener's comprehension, the more closely the brain wave patterns mirrored those of the storyteller. "In a world divided by a multitude of things, stories bring people together and create a sense of community. Despite our language, religion, political preferences, or ethnicity, stories connect us through the way we feel and respond to them. Stories make us human." Wrote Allie Decker in an article for the marketing website HubSpot. Your audience attends your events not just to enjoy themselves, but also to be part of a community. It is worth spending some time thinking about what your community is, and how to make it stronger.

3. Stories compel action. Ultimately, in marketing, the desired outcome is action. A sale. A ticket. A donation. How is your messaging moving people toward that action? Have you ever felt the difference when you read between learning something and being inspired by something? The difference is physical, and the energy of being inspired is exciting. One involves little emotion, beyond “ah, ok, I get it.” The other moves you sit up straighter, pay more attention, feel the urge to take notes, to create, to do something with the information you are receiving. It is generative. It STARTS something and compels you to continue. "Whether a story is told by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or a sales rep marketing skinny tea, stories paint a picture of what’s possible. They help people imagine something that they haven’t thought of before or help them see what they want in a new light. Stories help people believe in possibility, help them recommit to their vision, and inspire them to take action." reads an article on Well Said Labs. "If you want to lead people to do something that’s never been done before, you’ve got to help them imagine what this new world could look like and describe a future state that touches people emotionally, so that they stop thinking with their analytic, naysaying minds, and start seeing and believing with open, generative minds."

Those are three strong ways that storytelling can benefit your marketing. But how do you start to figure out the story itself? There are many, many stories in the world, but when you start to comb through them, you find the patterns in their plot lines. This was the theory of author Christopher Booker, who spent 34 years writing a book entitled Seven Basic Plots. The seven plots he identified are as follows:

  1. Overcoming the Monster: The hero/protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) that threatens the protagonist and/or the protagonist's homeland.

  2. Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or love, loses it all, and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.

  3. The Quest: The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing temptations and other obstacles along the way.

  4. Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return a changed person.

  5. Comedy: The protagonist triumphs over adverse circumstances, resulting in a successful, light, and happy conclusion. The conflict at the centre becomes increasingly confusing but is at last made plain in a single clarifying (and usually funny) event.

  6. Tragedy: The protagonist is a hero with a major “tragic” character flaw or makes a great mistake which is ultimately their undoing.

  7. Rebirth: The protagonist is forced by a dramatic event(s) to change their ways and usually becomes a better person at the end.

I am sure you can think of several examples for each of these plot categories, and they are all great frameworks with which you can craft your own specific story. Joseph Campbell simplified it even more in his Hero/Monomyth treatise of 1949 entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After studying many myths from diverse cultures, Campbell identified 12 consistent steps to each story. I will save you the lengthy explanation of each (although I recommend you find them online as they are very helpful); but he organizes his steps into three parts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Essentially, the storyteller must identify a hero and describe the hero’s circumstances. There then needs to be a challenge or conflict that forces the hero to take action. Often the hero has help from a knowledgeable guide (perhaps you or your organization?). The challenge is resolved, and the hero returns home better than before.

This is a wonderful framework to build out a marketing story. There are three basic elements to identify and include:

  1. The Hero. The hero may be the organization, but I believe it is more compelling when you place your patron or audience member as the hero. Who are they? What are their characteristics and their circumstances? How will they recognize themselves? Creating a relatable hero is crucial for your intended audience to feel empathy for them and travel their journey with them.

  2. The Conflict. What struggle does your hero have that you can help them solve? What needs do they have that your organization can fulfill? Harvard Business School professor Clay Christiansen calls the Job to Be Done, and Ruth Hartt has applied his theory to the performing arts on her excellent website Culture For Hire. What job is your hero/audience hiring for and why should they hire you? What is the challenge that your art can help solve?

  3. The Resolution. How do you resolve their conflict/how is their conflict resolved? How will the hero be changed by this experience? Think of this as the Customer Journey – what was their experience like? How do they feel now that their challenge has been resolved? What is their Happily Ever After, and how does it include you?

The story you create can be told in all your communications materials and marketing channels. The home page of your website is telling a story right now – what story is it telling? Images are often stories in and of themselves; they are worth a thousand words after all. Choose them very carefully, and make sure they reinforce the story you want to tell. The language you use is part of the story as well, it helps paint a picture of the characters and scene involved. Brochures, social media, website copy, emails, print or radio advertising – these are all opportunities for storytelling. They may be telling a story already, but perhaps not the one you want. People will find stories in everything, so make sure the one you present is strategic and intentional.


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