What The Moth can teach us about brand storytelling

Twenty thousand. That’s how many stories The Moth has told over the last two decades.

the moth brand logo

Not surprisingly, this non-profit organization based in New York City knows a bit about good storytelling. In fact, it’s their mission: The Moth promotes the art and craft of storytelling.

Today, The Moth Radio Hour features true stories told live by storytellers from many locations across the U.S. and abroad. Listening to one of their tales (or several thousand) is a smart way brand storytellers can learn to make their stories sing.

But how does personal storytelling translate into brand storytelling? Very easily. Because a good story doesn’t care who is telling it. A good story doesn’t care if its subject is talking about being an Elf at Macy’s (David Sedaris’ famous essay) or if its subject is demonstrating how cool it is versus Microsoft (Apple’s famous television commercials). A good story is a good story. But how do you know if you have a good story?

A good story tells the truth.

The Moth is a focused brand that stands for good storytelling. Its tagline is “true stories told live.” And this teaches us something immediately.

The best stories—no matter what kind of stories—stem from the truth. The truth they tell doesn’t have to be mind shifting, although that doesn’t hurt. If your story inspires a knowing smile, you’ve done the story well: Good stories come from something people can relate to—they come when you elevate something specific to the universal.

How do you find this truth as a brand storyteller?

The truth you’re telling doesn’t have to be complicated—it just has to resonate emotionally and deliver a universal message. For example, Chrysler turned the cold, hard fact that they come from Detroit into an emotional story that made the brand appear both authentic and inspiring in this classic Superbowl spot. The commercial turns their specific situation into a universal story that says, hey, there is a lot of good that can come out of a place that at first glance, seems bad.

Budweiser used its brand founder’s origins as its truth worth telling. One of its latest ads, “Born the Hard Way,” demonstrates how telling the story of a company’s origins can be powerful, memorable, and—with a bit of luck—extremely timely. Tell your specific brand story and elevate it to the universal American immigrant experience as Budweiser has done, and suddenly you have explosive brand power—at least if you’re doing it in 2017.

When looking for truth worth telling, don’t forget data. Good research can tell us what consumers think of a brand and where the opportunity for authenticity (and white space in the category) can be found. Data doesn’t lie. Facts matter. (Yes, even today, facts matter.) The magic for the storyteller comes in translating this rational data into its emotional story equivalent.

A good story is told from a person to a person.

When people tell stories on The Moth, they aren’t allowed to read from a paper.  They stand on a stage and talk directly to their audience in a conversational way.

A brand also needs to speak directly to its audience in an authentic way. It should feel as if there is no marketer between the brand and the consumer. This effect can be achieved in many ways, but using a conversational tone, avoiding jargon, and treating “target audiences” like individual people are three important considerations.

To write a brand story from “a person to a person,” do just that: write your message as if only one specific person is its recipient and you may find that it changes the way you write your story.

A good example of a brand speaking directly to its audience is Sephora. Its “Never Stop” social media messages appear to speak specifically to individual women, which creates a powerful overarching brand story that ultimately, speaks to their entire audience.

A good story begins with something attention grabbing.

A Moth storyteller does not get up and tell you how old they are and how long they’ve been trying to get a story on The Moth. They jump right into their story in order to captivate their audience with their best material in the first 10 seconds. Here are three examples of Moth story beginnings:

“My mother never wanted to go to the home.”

“It was late in the evening when my daughter came into the room where I was sewing.”

“I was with a warden in a truck and we were called to the scene of the crime.”

Note how all of these statements immediately bring you right into the scene within a sentence. A brand story should do the same, whether that story is represented by a 140-character tweet or a two-minute commercial.

A good story is simple—the simple on the other side of complicated.

There are two sides to simple. There is simple so basic it’s boring and then there is simple on the other side of complicated. This latter type of simple is storytelling at its most captivating and effective. Which also means it’s not so simple to achieve.

Google translates this “simple on the other side of complicated” storytelling concept perfectly in their Parisian Love ad. The brand manages to tell an entire international love story—all through the Google search bar—in about 50 seconds. (Not surprisingly Google and other top storytelling brands like Nike have also been participants in The Moth’s Corporate Program, which teaches employees to utilize the power of storytelling to promote their business goals and ideas.)

A good story is told with a distinct voice.

Some storytellers are funny. Some, like Tru by Hilton, are spirited. Some are emotional. Some are sarcastic. Some, like Hans Brinker, are rude (yes, even rude can work if it’s authentic to the brand). And some, like Nebraska Tourism, are just plain nice. Your brand needs a voice too—every good storyteller has one.

How does one establish a brand voice if a clear voice and/or a set of brand voice guidelines doesn’t already exist? Take a look at the brand architecture. The brand voice should be a creative interpretation of what the brand stands for. Look at a brand’s essence, positioning, and pillars and determine how this kind of brand would speak. The brand architecture is one of the most important blueprints a brand storyteller can have. Translate its truth into a voice that tells real stories and your brand might have yet another story to tell—one of its far-reaching success.

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