Storytelling Through Mobile: Interview with Paul Smith

Storytelling Through Mobile: Interview with Paul Smith

Lead with a StoryStorytelling is a valuable skill. It brings people together, gets ideas across, entertains, informs, delights and excites. Many marketing experts discuss the importance of telling stories to get your message across, but how can it be done in the mobile world, with limited space and limited time?

Paul Smith is a former consumer research director at Procter & Gamble and one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story. I used to run mobile marketing website Go-Mash Mobile and I was lucky enough to speak to Paul. Although Go-Mash is no longer around, I have managed to save the interview below:

Stories are often discussed in marketing, but what are the ingredients and structure of a story?
I think the primary foundation of a great story is:

  1. A hero that’s relatable to the audience – someone they can see themselves in (“Hey, that could be me!”) not some Hollywood superstar or sports hero. Famous people make great testimonials, but not compelling stories.
  2. Seeking a goal they consider worthy – If the hero in your story is trying to win a beauty pageant, and your audience thinks beauty pageants are petty and insulting to women, they’re not going to be interested in your story. They won’t respect your hero and they won’t respect your brand.
  3. Confronted by a challenge your audience is likely to encounter themselves – because they’ll want to find out how to handle that situation the next time they find themselves in it. They’ll be paying meaningful attention to your story, as opposed to, at best, the peripheral attention of a semi-interested celebrity watcher.If you have those three things, you have the makings of a compelling story your audience will want to listen to. You’ll still want to have a strong emotional component, a surprise, and perhaps a well-placed metaphor. But if you don’t have the foundational components, it’s going to be hard to make it work – like putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.Can you make effective advertising with shrill pitchmen or Hollywood celebs in shallow undertakings your audience will never find themselves in? Of course. But it won’t be because you’ve crafted a compelling story.

What are the benefits of using stories in marketing?
I think there are two primary benefits of storytelling in marketing.

First, stories make things easier to remember. Studies have shown that facts are more likely to be remembered if they’re embedded in a story than if they’re just given to people as a list. And you can prove that to yourself right now. Just ask yourself honestly, how long do you think you will remember the three primary elements of a story I described above, and the two benefits of storytelling I’m discussing here? An hour? A day, maybe?

But think about the last great book you read, or movie you saw, or great story you heard from someone at work. How long ago was that? And how long do you think you’ll remember the main points of those stories? Years? Decades

Second, stories put the listener in a mental learning mode. They dial down the critical and analytical part of their brain, and are more receptive to new ideas. This keeps them from shutting down to your message before you’ve even had a chance to explain it.

As much more marketing communication moves across to mobile through SMS, social and mobile web, we have very little time in which to capture the attention and imagination of our audiences. How can we get a story across with limited time and limited space?
One word: emotion. Novelist E.M. Forster defined a story as a fact plus an emotion. And he gave a brilliantly simple example. If I told you “the king died, and then the queen died,” well that’s not a story, is it? It’s just a fact. But if I told you “the king died, and then the queen died of grief,” now THAT is a story! And it’s only 10 words long.

Why is that a story? Because with the two words “of grief” you can suddenly imagine what must have happened. The queen must have so loved the king that when he died, she stopped eating and withered away. Or, maybe, she was so distraught that she took her own life! The emotion turned the fact into a story.

Ernest Hemingway used emotion to craft an even shorter one when he was famously asked to write a story in only six words. His response: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Tell me you can read that and not feel a depth of sadness for two despondent parents lamenting the death of their unborn child. Fact plus emotion equals story.

Do you believe mobile and internet technology changes or brings in more ways in which people can tell stories to their audiences?
Absolutely, it does. It broadens the spectrum in both directions. Forty years ago, the primary mode of communication brand marketers had was a sixty-second television commercial. Today you have vehicles as short as Twitter (one sentence) to thousands of words in a blog article, or a 20-minute video on YouTube.

Many of our readers are Marketing professionals who will need to ‘sell’ ideas internally to management in order to get backing. How can stories help them to achieve this?
The same way it works externally. Human beings (and yes that includes ‘management’) make emotional, subconscious, often irrational decisions on one side of their brain and then justify that decision logically and rationally on the other side. So if you want to influence management’s decisions, you’ll need to influence them emotionally. And you can’t do that with charts, graphs, logic and PowerPoint slides. You can only do that with stories.

For the marketers who are likely to say “There are no stories about our product.” How do you suggest they come up with them?
#1) Ask for them. Put up a comment box, have your employees ask customers how their experience was, invite product reviews on your website.

#2) Mine the wealth of stories already posted as product reviews wherever your product is sold on line (Amazon, etc.).

You can find Paul at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

Patrick is a digital marketing consultant with around 10 years' experience, covering SEO, PPC, social media, email and user experience.

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