Have you ever had a teacher who was so great at teaching that you still remember things you learned in that class, sometimes decades later? Most of us have had at least one of these educational superstars, whose specific talents led us to learning, oftentimes in spite of ourselves.
I’ve got a handful of favorite teachers, but one of them stands out in my mind – Mrs. Bonnell. During the awkward years of middle school, Mrs. Bonnell was a favorite of many. She was a history teacher, and because the state of Kentucky requires a semester focusing on state history, Mrs. Bonnell took up the challenge of teaching a bunch of easily distracted middle-schoolers about the history of their home state. To this day, I can still recall details about Kentucky history, well over 30 years after I learned them.
A great teacher, yes, but what was Mrs. Bonnell’s real secret for teaching?
How We Learn
I don’t remember a lot of textbook time in Mrs. Bonnell’s class. Most likely she had a textbook that was approved by the State of Kentucky and mandated for use by the local Board of Education, but she rarely dipped into it. Instead, she positioned herself in front of the class on a high stool, and she simply told stories. Woven into those stories were the bits of information that we needed to know – about Kentucky geography, native peoples, settlers, politics, traditions, and history.
She ignited our imaginations.
We were so caught up in the stories that we wanted to learn more. I remember one particular phase in which I made my parents suffer through learning to make fabric dyes from natural materials, just like the Kentucky settlers had. (Education, if you’re doing it right, is sometimes messy.)
You see, storytelling is an art form. It’s an integral part of the oral tradition that has allowed culture and wisdom to be passed down through the generations. It’s present in the lessons taught by Aesop’s Fables, and it’s even part of the modern culture of marketing.
Getting the Brain Involved
The Appalachian Mountains for many years served as a natural barrier to westward migration. When legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap and helped to establish the Wilderness Road, he effectively opened the west to thousands of settlers. This story is present in numerous history books, but it was Mrs. Bonnell’s description of building that Wilderness Road that lives with me even today. Boone and his party hacked their way through a forest so dense that felling trees was the only way to create a path wide enough for a wagon. Wagons rolled over ruts and tree stumps in an arduous journey punctuated by illness, fear, and warlike attacks by native peoples. Of the three settlements established along the Road, only one survived.
Imagine a group of middle schoolers held riveted by this story for an entire class period.
Studies have shown that specific areas of the brain engage based on the information being presented. A Slide Deck presentation might light up a couple of areas of the brain related to taking in and processing information while an engaging story lights up multiple areas of the brain. The more engaged your brain, the greater the connection to the information… and in the case of your marketing, to your business.
Storytelling as Business
I once had a sales manager tell me that sales was “all about the numbers” – meaning, of course, that success or failure rode upon the number of calls you made and people you contacted. It’s a pretty common tenet of sales, and some people do very well playing sales as a numbers game.
But let me challenge you with this thought: instead of getting your business out in front of as many people as possible and hoping to close sales, taking your business message to a new level by telling stories can help to boost your sales in a completely different way.
Further food for thought: In 2009, global whiskey brand Johnnie Walker took corporate storytelling to a new height with a six-minute, continuous take film that outlined the history of the brand. It’s a six-minute story that engages through the use of imagery, music, and the thick Scottish brogue of the narrator – which requires some concentration if you’re to understand everything being said. But the development of the “Keep Walking” campaign and the stories created around this concept served to help volume sales rise 94% over a ten year period, even as the worldwide whiskey market shrank by 8%.
Sales might be “all about the numbers,” but it’s the stories that get you there.