For attendees of Sitecore Symposium 2019: Human Connections in a Digital World who were interested in the Digital-First marketing content track, they were treated to a great keynote by Elissa Fink, the former CMO of Tableau Software who consults for companies to help with their marketing initiatives and serves on several boards.

Elissa broke down the importance of storytelling to help marketers achieve their goals. You can have all the compelling data in the world, but without having an effective strategy to get your point across, the importance of your findings can fall on deaf ears.

She started by detailing the work of Ignaz Semmelweis who was an obstetrician and chief resident at a hospital in Vienna, Austria in the 1800s and oversaw two birthing clinics. He found a direct correlation in infant mortality rates between two facilities – one staffed by student doctors and the other by student midwives. He discovered that the mortality rates were much lower at the hospital staffed by midwives. The reason? In the morning each day, the doctors were working with sick patients and cadavers. By simply implementing a hand-washing policy, the mortality dropped almost instantly by 90%.

So what was the problem? Despite all of his best efforts, he couldn’t convince other doctors and facilities to adopt a similar policy.

The power of storytelling

We all know a good story when we hear one. But what is it that makes them so powerful? The first, as Elissa explained, is memory. Even before people learned how to write, we as humans had to rely on our memory to tell stories and they needed an emotional hook to ensure they would last over time. The second reason is social norms. We as people needed guidelines for how to live together and get along once we started living in big cities and communities. Stories were an effective way to do that.

Stories work because they engage our senses, they help us remember and they help us experience new things.

So how you can tell stories that help inspire? Elissa says there are three key principles: Know your community, design for your story, and share and galvanize.

  1. The first step is knowing your audience, whether it’s your co-workers, executive leadership, a customer, a partner, etc. Figure out what they want to hear, what’s in their minds, what’s in their hearts. When you do that, you create empathy, and with empathy you create a connection. Know the big idea and what you want your audience, or community, to do. Lay out the problem and provide a clear solution and the benefits you hope to achieve by implementing that solution by having them get behind the idea.

  2. Most of the time when we are sharing, we are explaining. It’s a natural habit, telling people all the details about how something happened. But a better action is to take your audience on a direct path. Really focus in on what was important. Keep it about your discoveries, tell them things they didn’t know that are clear and get to the point.

  3. Build your story with emotion like it’s a play or a move through three acts. Act 1 is the setup, or the problem. Act 2 is the struggle, it’s the conflict and the drama. And finally, Act 3 should be the resolution.

Most stories have a hero in them. But it’s not you, the storyteller. It should be your audience. Make them the hero. Any by knowing them, who they are and what their goals are, it’s all the more important in telling a compelling story.

How to be persuasive

“Great stories that move people reflect truths,” Fink said. “Every story has a data lens that reveals either the human condition or the work condition. That’s why stories based on data are effective. They keep the facts about our experiences at the center.”

Anecdotes and one-offs might can be effective, but make sure they are grounded in verifiable data and trends. Because after someone hears a story, they want it to be relatable to themselves so it’s relevant.

Also, be smart about the visuals you use to tell your story. We are tuned and wired for how our brains take in visual information. Maps, numbers, and bar charts are great forms of communicating your data and having people “get it”. One form that Elissa says to avoid whenever possible is pie charts. They’re just very hard to understand when compared to other kinds of charts.

Use your perspective and share

You’ve got experience, and there’s an art to what you do as a professional. Bring that to your story. Your perspective can change how the story is told. Elissa gave a powerful example of two different charts showing the monthly death tolls of U.S soldiers in Iraq over several years. All the data was exactly the same, but through the use of different colors and whether the bar chart was going up or down, made a dramatic difference in perception.

And when you share, be sure to choose the right medium for you presentation. Is it for your executive team, an email, a social media post? A PPT deck? Pick the one you think will connect best with your audience. Then, show why you’re the expert on the given topic while being sincere and showing why it’s meaningful and genuine. Having social proof can also be powerful, showing that others care about this too. Find your connections.

When all this had been done, it’s time to get action. You can’t only ask for it, you have to inspire it. It means that whoever you are talking to has to want to do it. Create some passion for the project and you’ll be far more likely to see it come to fruition.

Elissa provided a powerful message for marketers that they can take away from Symposium and implement it into their every day professional lives. A great lesson from a great storyteller on the importance of impactful communications.

Zarnaz Arlia is the Vice President of Corporate Marketing at Sitecore. Find her on LinkedIn.