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The Power of Empathic Storytelling: How to Make Your Customer the Hero of Your Story

Imagine living in the 1800s. Besides (or perhaps because of) the obvious lack of modern technologies and medicines, the average life expectancy was just 40 years. I’d most likely be dust in the wind.

Despite increases in global life expectancy over the last two centuries, as a global population, we’re now more overweight, more obese and more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions than at any other time in history. For some, Covid-19 has created a lightning rod for change. Specifically, it has systematically transformed healthcare, changing everything from professional care to self-care. Record-breaking investments in health and wellness, specifically in digital health, underscore the importance of, and support for, this transformation.

My belief is that nutrition, fitness and preventative care create a trifecta for maintaining health and wellness. One approach to create awareness of all three is through storytelling, rather than lecturing (which doesn’t work). People open their minds and listen to stories with their hearts, making a personal connection to the message. I know I have.

Some years ago, as I walked onto a platform and looked at the 585-lb. loaded barbell on the floor in front of me, I replayed a highlight reel of the 13 years of grueling workouts it took for me to get there. I didn’t see the crowd in the stands, or the judges all around me. All I saw was the barbell. With more weight on it than I’d ever lifted. I needed this lift to beat my opponent and break the California state record for my weight class. I took a deep breath, walked up to the bar, and pulled with everything I had. The bar slowed as it passed my knees, but then shot up for a full lockout. A good lift. I won. I earned the record. And it all ended in 15 seconds.

I’m not an Olympian or a professional athlete, but because of all that training, nutrition and fitness are a way of life for me. They come naturally, like breathing. And it all started with the story of a kid getting picked on in school for being “husky,” the old euphemism for being overweight. That kid was me, but the story could be about millions of others. I’m constantly asking myself how I can inspire others to find their own story of triumph. After many phone interviews with leading executives at health and wellness brands, I found some surprising answers.

A prescription for storytelling 

When I think about storytelling, I used to think about Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, and other nursery rhymes that Mom read to me at bedtime. But storytelling is more than fairy tales and bedtime stories. It’s the oldest form of human communication, dating back to sitting around the fire at night and paintings on cave walls. Behind every painting or symbol is a story. Storytelling connects with people on a deeper, inspirational level. It can transcend the product. It can be the very foundation for building a brand.

Ruslan Tovbulatov, former Chief Marketing Officer at Thrive Global, has a powerful perspective. “How do we get people to introduce mindfulness or take a few more steps each day? The way we actually move and change their habits is through stories.” Tovbulatov tells us that storytelling moves people to action, which is why it’s at the heart of what he does at Thrive Global.

Story is a powerful motivator because it connects us with our memories, evokes emotions, and even stimulates physiological changes.

Peter McGraw, author of Shtick to Business, says, “Memory is built on associations. Whether exercising daily or smoking two packs a day, the unconscious mind has learned associations that have become automatic. To build a habit, you are essentially creating a new set of associations — weaving your own mental web.” Using storytelling as a means to create new memories and associations helps people build new habits, like taking a few more steps each day. Eventually, those habits become routine, and over time, they can become rituals.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs, and prolific writer about mindful productivity, defines the difference between habits and routines. “Habits happen with little or no conscious thought; routines require a higher degree of intention and effort. The difference between a routine and a ritual is the attitude behind the action. While routines can be actions that just need to be done—such as making your bed or taking a shower—rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose.” Everyone has their own habits, routines and rituals. Like making your bed, brewing coffee, going to weekly worship, sports — work, the list goes on.

Surprisingly, research has shown that nearly half of all behaviour is habitual. An experiment summarized in the book, The Choice Factory, described “two psychologists, Jeffrey Quinn and Wendy Wood, from Duke University, [who] gave 279 undergraduates watches programmed to buzz at set times. Whenever the alert was triggered, the students recorded, in detail, their actions at that moment. What they found was that across a range of areas from exercising to travelling, from eating to socializing, a full 45% of behaviours were habitual — the same decisions being made at the same time and place without full conscious thought.” How can brands and marketing build on this tendency?

Steve Schwartz, CEO of The Art of Tea, says that ritual is a big part of his customers’ experience. During my interview with Schwartz, he asked me how I make tea. I was a bit embarrassed, because I know there’s an art to making tea. A methodical process, which is the exact opposite of my approach. Nonetheless, I explained what I do. On Sundays, I start by boiling 64 ounces of water. Once it starts boiling, I pour some into a ceramic teapot with loose leaf herbal tea. I use Alexa and set the timer to three minutes. Then, I pour the steeped tea into a 64-ounce growler. I let the growler cool down on the counter for a few hours before I put it in the fridge. (Sidenote: If there’s anyone else who drinks tea from a growler, please, let’s connect.) What he helped me realize is that this is indeed a routine. Perhaps close to becoming a ritual.

Thinking about how customers use your product or service and how it incorporates into their lives will help you define a ritualization process. The key to that process lies with your current customers. Launch an interview program to collect personal stories that will help you deeply understand and empathise with your customers. Then, build on their experiences to tell stories about how your product or service changes people’s lives for the better.

Put simply, storytelling is about communicating a message to your audience — whether it be written, spoken, video or audio. When you know how to craft your story, it will help you move your brand forward to greater recognition, higher sales and better outcomes for both you and your customers. Storytelling takes what people already know and brings them in to engage them and evoke memory and emotion. It helps people make sense of events, actions and aspirations, while helping them interpret your reality and create context for their own experiences with your brand.

Make your customer the hero of your story

Many brands position themselves as the hero in the story. But they’re not the heroes: their customers are. Customers won’t care about how great your product or service is until they know how it helps them. “Creating a relationship with your customers starts with making your customers the hero of your story,” says Lori Raygoza, vice president of Ecommerce at Performance Health. Raygoza recommended that a brand’s marketing message should be clear and speak directly to the customer’s needs.

Zoe Wilson, Digital Marketing Manager at Betr Health, is largely devoted to creating compelling content. She works directly with clients to elicit case studies, stories and anecdotes to pay homage to their achievements and to inspire other members. One such story was about a client who was retiring and was diagnosed with cancer. The medicine she was taking was making her gain weight, which eventually brought on high blood pressure and cholesterol. From there, she spiraled into a depression. After starting her customized Betr Health program, she lost 35 lbs, restored her confidence, became much more energized and got back on her bike. She eventually stopped taking medication for depression. That’s the kind of story any company can be proud to share, and any patient will be able to relate to.

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