I’ve always loved English. It’s such a rich language with gloriously diverse ways of saying the same thing. In one form or another, English has been around for more than a millennium. In that time, many other languages – of conquerors and the conquered, of allies and foes – have left their trace. That’s why we have rusks and biscuits, crackers and cookies cheek-by-jowl in the same supermarket aisle.
You see English – rather unlike rather too many of its native speakers on its home island these days – is an incredibly welcoming entity, willing to admit as many chambers as it does verandas, as happy with Schadenfreude as the Reinheitsgebot. Mercifully there is no Academie Anglaise, and our linguistic open borders policy allows us to build narratives – tell tales – fabricate fables from the richest palate available to storytellers anywhere.
One fine benefit of this tolerance for tautology is that the able English speaker can deploy more forms of speech than those less linguistically well-endowed. And one of the simplest and most pleasing to the ear is alliteration: starting successive words with the same letter or sound, creating a rhythmic cadence to phrasing to make it more memorable.
As a corporate and brand storyteller, I spend my days working with marketing and communications folks to help them tell better, more impactful stories about why they exist, about the purpose they fulfil. This usually involves weeding out jargon, using fewer, better-chosen words, and sometimes – if we’re feeling playful – using figures of speech to ornament our prose.
In a classic example of the medium being the message, let’s consider the four Es of effective storytelling: emotion, empathy, energy and engagement.
Stories that include an emotional element are remembered better than those that are purely factual. Words and concepts that trigger an emotional response are of evolutionary value. Because things you could eat, mate with, or be killed by, deserve our attention and should not be forgotten. For the brain’s emotional barometer, an oval body called the amygdala [amygdala is the Greek for almond] lights up when we see, hear, talk about, or observe something pleasant or unpleasant.
The amygdala (actually there are two of them; just drill in on either side from the eyes and ears) is an ancient structure. It’s the keystone of the limbic system, and something we share with many other animal groups, including reptiles, birds and of course other mammals. Emotional content is encoded more deeply, more richly through the involvement of the amygdala, and as a result is remembered better. Brands would do well to remember this lesson from Psychology 101.
The cocktail party rule states: “If you want to be boring, talk about yourself. But if you want to be interesting, talk about something of interest to those you’re talking to.” Just consider those who draw an audience at a party, like wildebeest round a watering hole. Are they talking about themselves? Almost never. They’re talking about a subject and in a manner that draws others in. To achieve this with impact means thinking from others’ points of view before we start talking. It means understanding how others will receive the information that’s transmitted, not just thinking about the elegance of transmission. And being able to do this is only possible to the mind readers among us – the truly empathetic.
In the case of brands telling stories, looking to engage in dialogue with customers and consumers, empathy is a skill to be sought out, learned and prized. Those brands who fail to put themselves in the shoes of their audience, who can’t see – and tell – stories from their perspective, well they’re suffering from what we might call corporate Asperger’s syndrome. Some are mildly on the spectrum and just a little mind-blind. They can learn shortcuts to overcome this condition. But others – often business-to-business, tech-first enterprises – can only see the world from their perspective and need fundamental rewiring if they’re ever to be engaging.
English is a vibrant, living, ever-changing beast. All languages are, but English is particularly adaptable, capable of expressing energy through the types of words and phrases you choose to tell your story. It’s also supremely flexible. Has rules just waiting to broken. Smashed; crashed. Dashed against the rocks. Completeness comes from full sentences. But also from shards. Jagged outcrops.
What’s more, different types of words convey different states: verbs for action (think sports reporting), nouns for facts (an engineering manual), and adjectives for emotion (rousing poetry).
Too factual (the usual failing)? Cut down the noun count, particularly Latinate, abstract nouns.
Not enough action? More punchy, Germanic verbs please. Contrast the deathly dull “preparation, incubation, illumination and verification” with the raw energy of “sweat, timeout, eureka, prove”. Same model, very different levels of engagement.
Content lacking in emotional appeal? Increase the number and intensity of adjectives. Two is too few, four is a list, but three has the potential to become a mind worm. Three adjectives like emotional, empathetic and energetic. Say.
The fundamental point of any storytelling, of any language you choose to use, is to interest and attract those you want to influence. In the always-on world of brand dialogue, this applies as much to companies as it always has to people. And brands can learn to talk that elusive dialect of English – Human – if they follow the golden rules of storytelling.
If they wear their hearts on their sleeve and display their emotion.
If they put themselves in their audience’s shoes and reveal their empathy.
If they keep up the pace and exhibit real energy.
Do all of these things, and you’re very much more likely to secure that elusive fourth E: engagement.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.