Create Your Signature Story with David Aaker

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We all know that storytelling is at the core of design, but what is the art—and the science—of storytelling beyond Once Upon a Time? One of the overlooked essentials of branding is the “signature story,” according to David Aaker, who is a brand guru and the author of a new book called Creating Signature Stories: Strategic Messaging that Energises, Persuades and Inspires. The new title delves into how narrative-driven, honest stories can be the core of your business—if it tells a strategic message. How to strike a balance? It’s much more than just spilling your guts onto the floor, but has got to be more than just a simple joke, too. It’s a finely-tuned story with marketing tweaks, emotional truth and can communicate value. It doesn’t just end there, which is exactly why it’s helpful for every designer to know the ins and outs of the storytelling process, which is part-art, part-science.

With a focus on branding, rebranding and defining your company, Aaker talks about these principles in a lucid way, and they are more than just for the corporate bunch, they can be used by visual storytellers, like graphic designers, too. The 80-year-old advertising expert took out the time to chat with us about telling your story the right way, keeping it fresh and the magic of the surprise ending.

For the uninitiated, what is the best way to define a signature story?

David Aaker: The definition of a signature story is that it has to be intriguing, something that gets attention, something involving that draws you in and something authentic, not phony or a selling narrative with a strategic message. It is not a program description or assertion of facts. It is used to communicate internally and externally. But it could also be described as a “Once about a time…” narrative that describes an experience or relationship that represents who you are as a business or an organization, a narrative that jumps out of the clutter and is worth sharing.

What three things are hallmarks of strong signature stories? Is it basically we solve your problem?

DA: First, it is a narrative, not a description of a program, an assertion of values, or a set of facts.

Second, it pops out of the clutter for a variety of reasons—it may be the emotion, a character, a plot, an outcome. But something or some combination of things makes it pop. Third, it has a strategic message—it really communicates directly or indirectly something about you or our organization that is important to get out there internally or externally.

How do you make sure your ‘higher purpose’ story isn’t too evangelical or self-helpy?

DA: A higher purpose should be more than words. If the story is about creating words and there is no passion or programs behind it then it will come off as being inauthentic. So there needs to be substance. The effective stories are usually about the substance—programs and or their impact on people.

What is the best signature story you have seen this month?

DA: UC Health, a Colorado health care organization headquartered in Boulder, has over 100 signature stories all told from the client point of few, very emotional, very intimate, just amazing people. They have a staff of eight people that generate these stories and a lot of ways to exposure them.

What is the best platform for storytelling?

DA: In general, the way the story is communicated is tied to the story and the context; there will be multiple outlets used.

You say that this storytelling magic is about values, more than just facts, which is hard for brand execs to grasp. Why?

DA: It is not what is communicated but how it is communicated. If the same strategic message (which could be values, a strategic program, a purpose, or a value proposition) is communicated by describing something or stating facts, it is far less likely to gain attention, change perceptions, persuade, inspire or energize than if that same message was connected to a story by being inside it, in front of it, in back of it, or just implied by it.

What kinds of emotions should a signature story tap into?

DA: Any emotion. My branding decision—all stories do not have a strong emotional content. But even here, there is a feeling of satisfaction and aspiration of impacting the world. Virtually any emotion can be involved, it just depends on the story. But to be clear, all stories do not have emotion and can impact in different ways.

What’s a sign your audience is disinterested? Beyond the obvious.

DA: A story that does interest someone will be attended to, will be remembered, will change perceptions and some will persuade, inspire, and be shared.

Who should be the hero in the story?

DA: It is usually the customer or employee. Stories draw people in. When a speaker says, “Let me start with a story,” your attention focuses. But when a speaker talks in the abstract, communicating facts or programs without a story, your attention wanders. Stories fare best when they are engaging from the outset and have detail that allows you to visualize and empathize. Consider this first sentence: “It was a drab and rainy day in mid-May 1931 when 28-year-old Neil McElroy, the advertising manager for P&G’s Camay soap, sat down at his Royal typewriter and wrote perhaps the most significant memo in modern marketing history.” Doesn’t that perk up your ears? Why the memo? Why was it important? Who is this guy? What happened to him? You notice. It grabs your attention and you want to hear more.

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