Creating Meaning Through Narrative

imageOur minds construct narratives in order to interpret experience in a meaningful way.  If you ask three people to describe the details surrounding an event they shared together you are likely to get three very different stories.  Let’s assume that everyone is being truthful and presenting events faithfully to the best of their recollection.   You’ll find that each narration contains different and sometimes conflicting details about what really occurred. What’s more is that each person will be convinced that their representation of reality best describes what really happened.  Yet the details found in each story suggest otherwise.   Its not possible to accept all three stories as an accurate depiction of reality because they are conflicting accounts.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Eyewitness accounts are never considered reliable because our minds fabricate stories that give events in our life meaning.   False memories are created in order to fill in the blanks for the details that we can not remember.  Stories are a way for our minds to put data that is collected through our senses into a context that is both useful and based on our previous experiences.  That is why storytelling has always been an essential part of what it means to be human.

Even before the written word we used speech to tell stories in order to communicate and pass along history.   As oral traditions developed the stories that were told would evolve as they were passed from speaker to speaker until what began as a factual depiction of an event, as told by the original storyteller, took on mythological proportions.  These myths relied on dramatic exaggerations and were conveyed using  language that was steeped in symbolism and meaning.  The stories that evolved as a result bared little resemblance to the factual accounts they were based on.   The world’s first print culture grew out of East Asia, in China and in Korea, where woodblock printing created the world’s first print society.  The Gutenberg printing press would later revolutionize the written word in a way that is comparable to the way the Internet has today.  What’s changed today is the medium for telling stories and not the need people have for stories to be told to them.   These stories are necessary in order to provide life with meaning.  Think about the movies, books, and TV series that attract an audience.   They have characters that people can relate to and the audience cares about them enough to want to follow along through their experiences.  When it comes time for people to create their own stories out of their personal realities they can turn to the experiences found in these stories to add richness to their lives.  How do you attract people to your website?   How do you get people to care about what you tell them in your newsletter?  Its easy.  You tell them a story.

You can easily purchase a template for your website that makes it look professional.    Likewise you can also purchase email templates that will assure that all of your newsletters look professional.  However, just like in any superficial relationship, the novelty will wear thin and it won’t be long until you lose their attention for good.   That’s because it’s the content that you are using that allows you to tell your story to your audience.    A good product or a worthwhile service is useless if no one ever knows about it.   The way you interact with your customers becomes a part of the information that is collected and later recounted in the form of a story.  This story gets told when someone talks about what you are doing to other people.   The more you relate with your customers the longer they become engaged.  The longer you can count on your story lasting with them.   Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that was so good that you never wanted it to end?   Every moment offered you something new that you could relate to in your own life and you began living vicariously through the characters in the story.

Focusing on benefits,  or how a feature is useful, is a part of telling a story that your customer wants to hear.  A list of features is not compelling but talking about why those features are useful is.  A list of people that use your product is not as interesting as the names of the people that use it.   Even better than a list of names are testimonials and case studies that tell a story about you coming from another customer.  If you send out a bunch of mailings to a ton of people and its not obvious why you are sending them then you are telling a bad story to your customers.   It’s a story about how you are wasting their time.  The newsletters that you send should have a purpose that is obvious to your subscribers.  How do you run your business?  Are you simply trying to reach as many people as you can in the hope that someone will buy into what you are selling? If that is the only story you are telling your customers then you are telling a bad story because you are treating them like a number.  People care about other people and not numbers.  Or, on the other hand, do you demonstrate integrity by creating worthwhile products or services that are useful to people?  If you take that approach and you are able to effectively communicate it to your customers then you will win over more people.  The story your customers will tell other people will be about how you provided them with something that was useful and worthwhile.  Your subscriber lists will increase in quality and you will convert more of your list into actual sales.

Narratives are a natural part of how the mind interprets experiences.   Providing content that is compelling to your audience builds relationships and allows them to connect with you.  You are always telling a story with everything you do. Even if you are not consciously trying to tell a story you are.  If you are not paying attention to the content that you are using then the message you are sending is just a very bad one.  Taking control over your message gives you the opportunity to make yourself interesting. What kind of story do you want your customers to tell about you?

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  • Very insightful article, thanks Tariq. I will try to live up to it when we redesign our long overdue website. Also, thanks for following me on Twitter. Best, Wolf from Sydney, Australia.

    • Thanks Wolf. I’m glad you appreciated it. I look forward with great interest to your new site design.

  • Presley Homer

    Very important note. tnx