Truth, Trust, & the Power of Storytelling

One of the prevailing themes of 2017 so far has been the erosion of public trust in our key institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global study conducted by a respected communications marketing firm, confirms what many of us have felt: “trust is in crisis around the world.” For the first time since 2012, the public’s trust in government, business, media, and NGOs has declined significantly.

While there is a complex web of cause and effect that has culminated in a large-scale erosion of trust in these institutions, the end result is clear – a populace that is increasingly divided and suspicious of news, marketing, and media messaging. In the era of “fake news,” PR and marketing professionals must examine their methods and recalibrate their strategy in order to reach the general public in an authentic and credible way. But how?

Using Storytelling to Build Trust

Connecting with an audience has always been a powerful way to share information, create mutual understanding, and build trust. Since the days of bonfires and cave paintings, humans have used communal storytelling as a tool for social bonding. It’s in our DNA.

The Science of Storytelling

Neuroeconomist and professor Paul Zak has extensively studied the biological effects of storytelling. In a 2015 study examining the effect of stories on charitable giving, Zak found that sharing a dramatic narrative with an audience increased their willingness to donate money to strangers. Why? “The dramatic narrative caused viewers’ brains to release two incredibly powerful chemicals: oxytocin and cortisol.”

Oxytocin is a neurochemical that creates feelings of connection, care, empathy, and trust. Cortisol is a neurochemical that controls feelings of stress. The story allowed viewers to empathize with a relatable human experience, and the conflict in that story created mild stress. In small doses, the feelings of stress created by cortisol result in attentiveness and alertness rather than panic or unease. After watching the story, the audience was alert, empathetic, and more willing to donate to a related cause than those who hadn’t been exposed to the story.

Zak’s research proves that storytelling is a potent way to reach new audiences, create a rich brand narrative, and establish a foundation of trust – but only when done honestly and with care.

Storytelling Done Well

The power of stories to move us, connect us, or enrage us isn’t brand new – in fact, the times we live in are in part the result of cynical storytelling. Consumers who buy into a story only to find that the product or experience doesn’t live up to the narrative will become understandably reluctant to trust future messaging. This poses a challenge to brand-building efforts: we must tell an authentic, credible story or none at all.

Author and hotelier Daniel Craig was a pioneer in boutique hotel marketing through storytelling and now works as a marketing consultant for some of the industries foremost brands. Craig says, “I think the hotel industry can be credited with creating fake news because of its tradition of fairytale descriptions, fantasy photos, and hopes that guests don’t notice the reality of the property.” This discrepancy between fantasy and reality destroys the efficacy of brand messaging and the damage can take years to overcome.

In a market saturated with stories, the ones that stand out provide authenticity, integrity, and transparency. For instance, Craig cites the Casablanca Hotel, which “takes great pains to inform travelers that their classic rooms are small, without views, and not recommended for extended stays.” While this may not seem like a compelling story, it resonates with a certain subset of travelers and pays off through its commitment to honesty. When a customer arrives, they find the room to be exactly what they expected and are more likely to leave a positive review (yes, consumers have the power to tell stories too!).

The Power of Public Presence

The best stories have a human face. While consumers are capable of empathizing with a wide variety of characters, there’s nothing like another human being when it comes to stimulating oxytocin and cortisol. That’s why some of the best, most credible brand stories come from the people inside the brand.

Instead of heading to the drawing board to create stories from scratch, brands should look within for the true stories that will resonate the most with their audience. As I’ve explored previously, employees are often the most effective brand advocates and storytellers. Sharing a simple statement from an insider about the brand’s meaning to them and effect on others is a powerful way to display transparency and authenticity and build trust with consumers.

Above all else, the era of “fake news” has revealed that audiences are longing for trustworthy, authentic stories that follow through. Brands that want to set themselves apart can do so by sharing true stories from credible sources.

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