More on Storytelling

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ―

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

The more I read about storytelling, the more fascinated I am on the use of this technique in place branding. I recently completed a book entitled “*Personality Not Included” authored by Rohit Bhargava. The focus is on why companies lose their authenticity, and how the ones that are great brands get it back. There are a number of important lessons with reapplication potential to place branding. For example, the notion of “getting your best Ambassadors to do the work for you” is one every community can leverage to their advantage. The key is to identify them and enable their success. There is also a great discussion on how to be unique. This book is well worth a complete read.

The section I want to focus on though is the “Lessons From Storytellers”. Rohit provides a great overview of the concepts used by storytellers to effectively communicate. These concepts can, and I believe should, be used by place marketers to help set their communities apart in the minds of potential capital investors.

Rohit talks about the importance of a good well articulated backstory. This is the story of your community’s history. The goal of a backstory is to establish a foundation of credibility. It explains why you are in a position to make compelling claims about what investing capital in your community can deliver. It is not the “sell”, just the set-up. Rohit’s analogy is that a backstory is the appetizer to the main course of your community benefits story. In a backstory you want to establish an emotional connection with your audience quickly, you want colorful characters and a way of telling it that creates an image in people’s minds. In short, you want to bring your community history to life in a memorable way. For example, rather than simply identifying the top companies in a given industry located in your community, tell the story of how the industry evolved to its current strength. Talk about the trials and tribulations, the visionaries that never gave up, and the notable success that was achieved. Then talk about your current assets and expectations for future industry growth. The backstory helps provide context, and a good one sets the audience up to want to learn more.

The other idea Rohit puts forward is that there are five primary backstory types told by companies. Each is relevant for communities as well. I’ve taken Rohit’s descriptions and modified them for place branding.

  1. The Passionate Enthusiast. This is the story of a driven individual who takes personal passion and directs it into building a successful business that becomes the foundation upon which the community grows.
  2. The Inspired Inventor. A tireless inventor creates something new and different by not giving up on his or her vision, and as a consequence reshapes the community.
  3. The Smart Listener. A new company is created by listening to customers, partners and others. It becomes so successful that it is the seed corn for a new industry.
  4. The Likeable Hero. A dedicated individual overcomes all odds to make his or her idea work. The success inspires like-minded individuals to locate in the community and creates a strong industry capability.
  5. The Little Guy versus The Big Guy. The classic David versus Goliath story where a company takes on insurmountable odds and finds a way to win; thereby, creating a vibrant economic base for the community.

For most communities, the backstory can be told by selecting one of the five models. You will want to slect the one that makes telling your community backstory easy. Then, you need to ensure you think through 5 elements – characters, challenge, vision, conflict and triumph. Each of these elements is important for a successful backstory.

Think about the backstory of Brand America. It is told as the story of a group of patriots who were victorious over a much better resourced opponent and in the aftermath created a country where all individuals can pursue life, liberty and happiness. A story of freedom that has endured the test of time.

A good place to start defining your community’s backstory is by visiting your local historical society or museum and studying the business history. You might be amazed at the colorful past and intriguing characters at the heart of today’s success.

I believe every community has a backstory that can be told. But, it does take some work to figure it out and then tell it in a memorable way. Backstories speak to the “right brain” of your audience. They engage the emotion. Your primary “sell” will speak to the “left brain” and be laden with facts and figures. To ensure your community story stands out and is remembered, it is important to engage the “right brain” of your audience. A great backstory will help you do that successfully.

For more on storytelling, read my previous blog posts – “Every Community has a Story, What’s Yours?” and “Creating Memorable Experiences”.


What has your experience been in using storytelling to promote your community? Leave a comment on what you found worked and what didn’t work.

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