What brands can learn from literature

March 21, 2014

By: Rachel Catanach​​​​

The story of “The Old Man and the Sea” is a compelling tale of triumph over adversity. Ernest Hemingway takes us on a journey where the protagonist, Santiago, battles it out with a huge marlin. The story is not just about Santiago’s immense physical challenge but also his spiritual struggle. It exposes Santiago’s innermost feelings and readers can almost feel his pain through the page.

So what can brands learn from Hemingway when developing narratives? Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter said it well: “We learn best – and change – from hearing stories that strike a chord within us.”

Stories are the most enduring delivery tool for information. Their structure takes readers on a familiar journey. But structure is only the start. Here are four common factors that are inherent in great storytelling:

Simplicity: Stories with simple messages often resonate best. Hemingway was famous for his spare language yet he managed to convey complex emotions nonetheless. Your language should be as concrete as possible. “Dumb ways to Die,” the campaign by McCann Melbourne that dominated last year’s award season, is a lot more powerful than “Preventing avoidable deaths through sensible action.”

Surprise: The finest stories always have an element of conflict or surprise. Unexpected twists and turns keep the familiar story structure fresh and make the eventual resolution more satisfying. The headline “Man bites dog” is a case in point. Curiosity is piqued before the reader even starts the story.

Emotion: Great narratives speak to us emotionally, provoking us to laugh, cry, smile or frown. Emotions ultimately inspire action and are fundamental to compelling narratives.

Relevance: Stories need to be relevant to the audience on some level. And in the Internet age, one way of ensuring relevance is by involving audiences in the storytelling, letting them help shape the story’s direction and conclusion.

So next time you are reading a bedtime story or novel, think about what spurs you to keep turning the page. There is much for brand managers and communicators to learn from literature.

Rachel Catanach is FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice Leader for China. You can reach her at rachel.catanach@fleishman.com.