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How much is a $3 ashtray purchased at a yard sale worth? Trick question. What if the same ashtray is sold on eBay but includes a short story by William Gibson? Then it's worth $101.

Still don't believe in the alchemistic powers of a great story? Then you need to read Significant Objects, a new book that details a quirky literary experiment that set out to prove that "stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively." And as coauthors Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker discovered, whether a famous author or an up-and-comer wrote the story didn't matter.

By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of insignificant objects for a combined total of $3,612.51.

Once Upon a Newsletter

Although Significant Objects is a fun reminder of the value of fiction, that doesn't mean you should turn over your newsletter campaign to the staff of the Paris Review. But anyone looking for a reminder of simple but effective storytelling can learn a few lessons from the makers of the Pebble smartwatch.

As part of my Kickstarter pledge for Pebble, I now receive regular updates via email. And although the emails are occasionally long and geekish, I've been impressed at how the Pebble founders are able to tell a natural and compelling story about their watch in progress.

A recent update promised, "We're looking forward to sharing all kinds of cool things with you during the next few months, including updates from the factory, links to developer information [and] screenshots of the iOS and Android app as they take shape." It's a birth narrative, except for a watch instead of baby. The updates even contain some narrative tension—how soon will Pebble be able to ship watches to eager backers who were promised a September deadline?

Even though I've already paid for the watch, this behind-the-scenes tour is increasing Pebble's perceived value by making me emotionally invested in its development. This process is almost identical to the literary experiment that Significant Objects conducted, except that Pebble is telling a nonfiction story.

As a bonus, by the time Pebble's founders are ready to sell their watches to the general public, they will have generated a rich, coherent product and brand story via their updates.

Telling Stories for Fun (Not Profit)

As the intro of Significant Objects notes, the experiment proves "the value-adding power of narrative." But not every brand or product story should have a monomaniacal focus on selling customers something. As Significant Objects coauthor Rob Walker recently noted on DesignObserver.com, telling a good tale is more than just a tool or tactic: "A good story is not a means to an end. It's an end. It's a thing of value, all on its own."

That lesson is especially critical for consumer brands that use a content-marketing approach for their social media campaigns. Last year's series of Coca-Cola Content 2020 videos illustrated (literally) a multiyear commitment to dynamic storytelling. The goal, according to Jonathan Mildenhall, vice-president of global advertising strategy and creative excellence at Coca-Cola, is that "every contact point with a customer should tell an emotional story."

Does that mean every one of Coke's stories will end in a call to action? Hopefully, not. Will every story link back in some way to the overall Coke narrative? Hopefully, yes.

Raiders of the Lost Story Arc

The goal, then, is to map out the long-term story that your company or brand is planning to tell. HBO shows are particularly good at doing so. Each season of The Wire focused on a particular institution (civic politics, the school system, print journalism) while the show itself told a five-season story about Baltimore's ongoing attempts to deal with a rampant drug problem.

As you can imagine, such an approach requires a substantial amount of up-front thought and planning. But once you determine your brand arc, you can much more easily ensure that every piece of content you develop—newsletters, videos, tweets, or Facebook posts—is contributing to your overall story, one image, video, or sentence at a time.

Once Upon and Once Upon Again

We have no shortage of blog posts and books that remind us how humans are natural storytellers. Joan Didion, a master of the literary essay, called one of her nonfiction collections We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

But traditional marketing approaches and templates, such as the lifeless press release, either push story to the margins or eliminate it altogether. To overcome the constraints of tradition, you'll need to encourage all of your employees to practice storytelling on a regular basis. Here are four easy ways to practice your gather-'round-the-campfire skills:

  1. Brainstorm a new marketing campaign by starting with the phrase "Once upon a time…" and conclude with "and so customers lived happily ever after." You'll be pleasantly surprised at the story you end up creating.
  2. Write a letter to a friend about your product, service, or brand. The letter format encourages a more natural narrative and eliminates buzzwords.
  3. Distill your marketing story down to 140 characters. All strong stories can be condensed to a single sentence. Stuck? Start by creating a message map.
  4. Create an Aesop's Fable that uses your brand or product as the protagonist. Don't forget to include a moral.

The Never-Ending Story

Getting into the storytelling habit takes practice. But unlike the authors in Significant Objects, who had to work their magic on old wine glasses, mallets, pink plastic horses, and a penguin dairy creamer, you'll be starting with a real product or service that offers inherent value, which greatly increases the chances of a happily ever after.

(Image courtesy of Bigstock: Mad scientist)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Bigge is a digital content strategist at Nurun and a regular contributor to the Digital for Real Life blog.