The Importance of Storytelling, Big and Small

Aug 11, 2014


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Article ImageIn the creation of content, storytelling is a valuable and necessary skill. For those who consume content, a good story makes consuming the content that much easier. It is often assumed that simply having good content or having a good idea will translate into good stories, though this is often far from the truth. Indeed, the ability to tell a good story can be an extremely useful tool.

A recent Harvard Business Review article discussed the issue of storytelling and its importance, concluding that during this time of information saturation, telling a good story is essential to being heard and getting your message out.  The article concluded that no matter what aspect of business you are involved in, storytelling is an essential skill.

To tell a good, effective, story through any medium, both the small and the large aspects of the story need to be emphasized and given equal value. Even more importantly, the component of the story with which you lead defines and sets the tone for the entire story. The manner in which a story begins determines the consumer's perception of the story as a whole.

On the micro side, small anecdotes and examples are often used to effectively bring a personal touch to a story, but these often leave the reader wondering if there is more to the story than this one example.  There are numerous examples of personal or small-scale stories that can be heart wrenching and influential but are not indicative of larger problems or were simply anomalies.

In a similar way, large, macro-level facts supporting stories, such as nation-wide economic data, are effective in demonstrating large problems, but can often feel empty and leave readers or consumers of content feeling like the story lacks a personal touch.  Simply relying on macro-level story components can leave the content consumer feeling like the story has no real world application, after all, how much can national GDP really impact my daily life?

Both examples of these can be seen with the recent case of open defecation in India. This has become a serious problem that has been given a considerable amount of media attention. The way in which this story is presented, and in particular how they start, influences the entire tone of the story.

On the macro side, The Economist posted an article about this problem in India, citing such facts like 130 million households in India lacking toilets and 600 million people in India who have no toilets.  The article continues also refers to India's goals of ending the problem by 2019. While this article then goes on to refer to the anecdote that the NPR article leads with, the entire tone of the article is determined by its first two paragraphs, and it feels impersonal and academic. It is a great source of information if you were looking for large numbers and as a consumer, did not want to get emotionally involved in the problem.

On the other hand, a NPR article--posted 10 days before The Economist article--led with the story of two Indian girls who were sexually assaulted and killed because they lacked access to toilets and went to a field at night to defecate. The article then follows with quotes from people involved with the girls as well as an anecdote of a blossoming entrepreneur who is trying to solve the problem by installing toilets all over the country.

This article goes on to reference some of the stats and large numbers referenced in The Economist article, but the tone was established early on and it feels like an op-ed piece that sometimes lacks a larger perspective.  This article is great if, as a consumer, you do not care as much about the academic side of things and want to be emotionally invested in the story.  

These storytelling techniques are not limited to news articles, as they are relevant in the creation of any content.  For example, an effective social media campaign can benefit greatly from effective storytelling, even if the story isn't told in one fell swoop. You can start by sharing an inforgraphic that relays all the macro information and statistics that you want your audience to know, before sharing a blog post that details someone's personal story. Whether you're talking about a new product or promoting a cause, this story can work for you.

All content has both micro and macro components, so identifying them in relation to your target audience is an important first step in content creation. Utilizing the large and the small facets of the story, and leading with the one that you want to set the tempo of your story, can lead to a more controlled and effective story.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


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Great content is integral to digital success, and in order to create great content, you need to be able to tell a great story. Of course, in the age of social media, online video, and apps, storytelling doesn't always look like it used to. So Jose Castillo sat down at The International Storytelling Center with director Kiran Singh Sirah, and Brad Eshbach to talk about the art and power of storytelling -- digital and otherwise.