Why Is It So Hard To Tell A Meaningful Story? - Protagonist Skip to the content

Why Is It So Hard To Tell A Meaningful Story?

Stop me when this starts to sound familiar.

You’ve spent a ton of time crafting what you think is a meaningful story for your organization to share with its audience.

Maybe this story is the narrative told on your organization’s website. Perhaps it’s a new blog post. It might be a thought leadership article, or maybe even a new case study.

The day finally arrives for your story to go live. You’ve gotten so much positive feedback on it from your colleagues that you can’t wait to see how your audience eats it up.

So with a huge grin, you post it and wait for the likes and shares to roll in.

And wait. AND WAIT.


Biggest. Letdown. Ever.

You don’t get it. What did you do wrong?

You KNOW you created a meaningful story.

In fact, you went out of your way to make sure it was well-written and researched, inspirational and stirring. It even showed how your organization is making a positive impact on the world.  

Seriously? What more do people want?!

Here’s the thing: You may very well have told a meaningful story for you. But unfortunately, it wasn’t meaningful to your audience.

I know. It seems crazy that there’s a difference. But there is — and it can be considerable.

What makes a story meaningful?

Stories mean different things to different people. Whether or not a story will resonate with us is based on a number of things, including our:

  • Personal life experiences
  • Values and beliefs
  • Extent of influence from friends and family
  • Generation
  • Culture
  • Pain points, or emotional triggers that drive us to act

This is why you need to understand each of the above aspects of your audience — inside and out — to be successful at meaningful storytelling.

If you don’t know for whom you’re telling the story, you have no idea WHY you’re telling the story — except for whatever reasons might “sound good” to you as an organization.

And that, my friends, is a recipe for failure.

Your story is only meaningful if it drives your audience to act on whatever it is you want them to do. Period.

The first and foremost way to accomplish this is, as I said above, to have a comprehensive understanding of your audience: their habits, behaviors, preferences, needs, and desires.

And the best way to do this is to develop user personas. They’re the key to creating the killer user experience your audience needs in order to care about you. 

The role of user experience in meaningful storytelling

Now, don’t get me wrong.

Crafting stories that are emotionally compelling is the bedrock of meaningful storytelling, regardless of who your target audience is. People consistently respond to emotional appeals. 

But your emotionally moving story must craft a meaningful user experience or else it loses its power. It must fulfill the specific experience(s) your users crave from your brand or organization.

Experiences are the thoughts and feelings that consumers have about how your product or service helps them achieve some goal in their life.

Remember that audiences always want your experiences, not the specific product or service you’re selling. In other words, they want you to make them feel a certain way when they use your product or service.

That is what they’re buying.

Coca-Cola is one of the best examples of meaningful storytelling that’s crafted to provide a specific user experience.

Their mission is “to refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions.”

Coke’s brand is all about happiness; they want to make the world a happier place. As a strong brand, they know how to relate the experience of happiness to the audience they’re trying to target.

If you look at Coke’s storytelling — both visual and textual — it doesn’t emphasize the actual product at all.

Instead, it links Coke to the experience of feeling happy. Then, when users want to feel happy, they drink Coke and are taken to “the Coke experience of happiness.”

Reasons why your story isn’t meaningful to your audience

Okay, so you get the importance of understanding your audience and crafting your stories with their desired experiences in mind.

But there are still lots of other reasons your story may not be coming across as meaningful to your audience:

1) You’re making it about you, not them

Do your stories suffer from narcissism? Are they loaded with “I”, “Us” and “We”?

If so, that’s a huge problem.

Your audience wants to know one thing: How your product/service will help them. You always want your story to be audience-centric, focused on your users and how your actions will achieve your users’ desired experiences.

2) You expect them to stick around for a while

Competition for people’s time and attention is under assault, and there’s no end in sight. There has never been a moment in history when we have so much information to sift through.

You must understand this: Your audience WILL NOT stick around to engage with your stories until they “get to the good part.”

If they don’t get what they expect in less than 59 seconds, they will leave your site and likely never return.

Your story’s very first sentences must hook your audience or else it is pointless.

3) You’re trying to tell your story to everyone

Something that organizations need to accept from the beginning is that there are no more mass audiences these days.  

I still get clients that resist this notion. They’ll use businesses like Facebook as a primary example, pointing out that the social media giant has 1 billion users of vastly different demographics and user personas.

That is true. But it’s not true that Facebook has a “mass audience.”

Instead, organizations like Facebook are successful at reaching a high volume of users because they aggregate a number of targeted audiences.

In other words, Facebook serves a number of different, smaller audiences with a variety of different needs. High schoolers, for instance, are on there for a very different reason than retired people. And ultimately, Facebook’s success comes from being able to aggregate all those targets into one product.

Meaningful stories always come from speaking directly to your target audience’s wants and needs. Even if you’re Facebook. 

4) It’s not motivating to your audience

People’s emotional and cognitive limitations are real. They can only attend deeply to a certain number of topics at one time.

What’s more, people will only pay attention to topics when they’re motivated to do so. Therefore, your story needs to be meaningful enough to motivate them.

Okay, fine, but where does this motivation come from?

Primarily from speaking to your users’ social identifications and self-interest needs (a fancy way of saying… you guessed it… understanding your audience and crafting their experiences!).

To motivate your audience to engage with any story you create, make sure you’ve answered and addressed these 3 points:

  • Does it make your audience feel smarter?
  • Does it make your audience feel good about themselves?
  • Does it make your audience want to take action on what they’ve read/heard/saw?

Motivation goes way beyond the utility of your content, or of your product or service.

5) It’s not told the way they want to hear it

It’s all about relevance. If your story is not relevant to your audience, it’s not meaningful.

A huge part of a story’s relevance is how it’s told, technologically speaking. Meaning, in what format are you trying to tell it? In a blog? A video post? Or maybe an infographic?

Variety is great, and all of these forms of media can be super successful at meaningful storytelling — as long as you understand which ones your target audience actually likes and finds useful.

For example, younger people appreciate storytelling in small bits as opposed to more long-form storytelling. Older demographics prefer whitepapers to video.

Some people love visual storytelling because it’s easy to digest and they don’t have much time to read. On the other hand, some folks appreciate storytelling through words.

Know your target audience, and you’ll know how they want to hear your story.

6) It isn’t authentic

“Practice what you preach” is a long-repeated, boring platitude.

But when it comes to telling a story that resonates with your audience, nothing is truer. 

If your messaging and stories do not align with your actions, then you will never be able tell a meaningful story.

Successful storytelling is rooted in trust, and it is the net effect of storytelling.

You build trust with your audience by being transparent about your organization’s mission, goals, objectives, beliefs and values. Then you tell stories that show how your brand fulfills them.

Take Starbucks, for instance. CEO Howard Schultz is very vocal about his political and social beliefs and how Starbucks’ corporate social responsibility embraces them.

Every story that Starbucks tells backs up Schultz’s beliefs and shows them in action. From hiring veterans, to paying part-time employees’ healthcare, to providing college financial aid to employees, Starbucks’ story is authentic and consistent.

7) You’re not telling a story that gives your audience an experience

I’ve already been over this a million times, but it’s so worth it that I’ll state it here again.

You must give your audience the experiences that they want.

Think back to how the Coke brand, based on its mission statement, is speaking to three specific user experiences: Happiness, optimism and identity.

This means that Coke’s strategy should be to make sure that its content is always associated with these three experiences (and it is).

Your brand and its stories needs to do the same.

8) The story you’re telling isn’t consistent with the one you’re living

This is similar to the problem of inauthentic storytelling.

Essentially, inconsistent storytelling means that there’s a gap somewhere between the story you’re telling and what you’re doing.

Inconsistent storytelling doesn’t mean that it’s deceptive storytelling. Oftentimes, an organization’s story is inconsistent due to things like unclear or conflicting goals and objectives. 

Southwest Airlines is a great example of a brand that has a consistent story — one that successfully tells the story that they are living.

For example, some of Southwest’s user experiences for their target audience include fun, relaxation and adventure.

And every Southwest employee — from phone rep to flight attendant — caters to these experiences. They’re all on the same page. 

But Southwest would have a big problem with their story if users had an entirely different experience with their pilots and flight attendants than with their customer service phone reps.

If that were the case, users would not be getting a consistent story.

There would be a major disconnect between the story Southwest is telling and the one that they’re actually living. This is bad because it would eventually erode its audience’s trust.

A meaningful story is consistent across all channels and in all departments of your organization.

How To Tell A Meaningful Story

By now, you hopefully have a clearer idea of what telling a meaningful story entails.

Although it can be challenging to create a successful story that resonates with your audience, here are some basic steps that can get you started on yours right now:

1) Determine the 2-3 specific user experiences you’re creating for your audience

After you’ve finished completing your super-thorough user personas (or have hired a talented strategist to do this for you!), think about the top 2 or 3 experiences that you offer to your audience. You will then link these experiences to all of your content and stories.

But be sure that the experiences you identify are truly at the core of your organization’s mission and values — not just what you think your users want to experience. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as inauthentic.

2) Choose the format you’ll use to tell your story

Will you tell your meaningful story through a visual narrative like video, photos, infographics or Slideshare?

Or does your audience prefer to consume their stories in the form of blogs and thought leadership articles?

Rely on your user personas to guide you — they will clearly tell you which media your target audience wants (and when).

3) Craft equally meaningful calls to action (CTAs)

You’ve seen them. Those terribly boring CTAs. They always say something like, “For more information, call today.”

Nope. That’s not a CTA, that’s the end of an infomercial at 3am.

Your calls to action need to be just as meaningful as the stories, and they need to align with one of your chosen user experiences.

For example, if you’re a life coach, maybe one of your user experiences is empowerment. In that case, your CTA should be something like: “Tired of waiting around for your life to fall into place? Make it happen, on your terms, now.”

From start to finish, your story needs to be consistent, authentic and motivating for your audience to want to take action.

4) Get users involved as storytellers in your story

Speaking of empowerment, people love to share their thoughts. It’s validating and builds their confidence. 

So, why not use that to their — and your organization’s — advantage by letting them help tell your stories?

Like product reviews or customer testimonials, user-generated content resonates with current or potential clients in a way that traditional marketing messages cannot; it has a level of trust and transparency that goes above and beyond anything the brand itself can provide.

Getting your users involved as storytellers in your brand’s stories shows that you value what they think and, most importantly, that you’re here to listen to and understand their needs.

Are you looking for a professional content strategist and storyteller to handle all of this for you? I’m right here! Give me a call or shoot me an email to make your story resonate with your audience right now.