Captivate your audience through great stories

Posted: April 16, 2012

Diane Kuehn Founder & CEO

Your target audience doesn’t care about you.

And why should they? You smother them with facts. You provide them with all they need to know about your institution’s culture, appeal, differentiators and benefits. And while they might be interested, they still don’t truly ‘care’. They’re inundated with marketing materials, emails, websites and social media messaging from no less than five of your competitors, all saying pretty much the same thing as you. And unless you give them a good reason to care – a reason to connect – they’ll turn their attention elsewhere.

So how do you draw them in? How do you make a strong connection? You tell them a great story.

Much of our time and energy as marketers is spent on defining our target audience, figuring out what our messaging and differentiators are, and then getting that message out. In order to make sure that your message doesn’t get lost in a sea of noise, it has to be compelling, memorable and communicated in a way that the target audience will connect to it. Some in Hollywood (especially our friends at Pixar) do an outstanding job of communicating messages. But what we call ‘communication’, they call ‘storytelling’. By learning from some of the same techniques they use, we too can tell compelling stories.

An emotional connection

One of the best told stories in modern film is that of Carl and Ellie in the movie, Up. Over the course of six or seven minutes, we deeply connect with the main characters and our lives are forever changed. (If you haven’t seen it, watch the video above. Grab some tissues, you’ll need them.)

So how did the filmmakers get us to connect so deeply with this story in such a short amount of time, and with little to no dialogue to boot? In short, they understood their audience and understood that there are commonalities that we all share.

  • We want to make a loved one’s dream come true.
  • We get caught up in life’s daily challenges and routines, which can lead to the sacrifice of our childhood dreams.
  • We are afraid of losing someone dear to us.

Once they identified these commonalities, they tied them to the characters and, viola, they had us! We can easily place ourselves in the position of Carl and Ellie. We connect with them. We have empathy for their situation. We CARE about them.

It’s all about them

In the book,” The Golden Theme”, author Brian McDonald suggests that the underlying theme of all great stories is that “we are all the same”. Consider the protagonists in these emotional blockbusters:

  • “Up” Like Carl, we all want to make a loved one’s dream come true.
  • “The Godfather” Like Michael Corleone, we are all children looking for a parent’s approval.
  • “Jaws” Like Police Chief Martin Brody, we must all face our fears.

All too often, we start telling our story without first drawing our audience in. As proud as we are of our respective institutions, we need to resist the temptation of starting our stories with a long list of facts, figures, differentiators and benefits. We need to remember that it’s all about our target audience.

How this changes the way you tell stories

Consider these two versions of the same situation:

Amanda couldn’t afford to attend college without significant financial support. As a strong academic student, she applied for and was awarded Local College’s ‘2000 XYZ Scholarship’ which made her dream of becoming a nurse practitioner possible. Amanda is now the chief nursing officer at ABC Hospital.


Amanda’s father suffered a massive heart attack late in her junior year of high school. During the months that followed, Amanda was inspired as she watched her father’s nurses provide wonderful personal care while she balanced looking after her younger brothers and schoolwork. The extra workload (caring for her family and working 20 hours per week for the remainder of her senior year of high school) took its toll on Amanda’s grades. She dropped from first to sixth in her class, yet she still earned a high enough GPA to get accepted into all the best schools.

After the heart attack, her family was left severely limited in its ability to support Amanda’s dream of attending nursing school. In 2000, the Local College’s XYZ Scholarship Fund learned of Amanda’s situation and made it possible through financial support to make her dreams come true. Amanda is now the pride and joy of her now healthy father as Chief Nursing Officer of ABC Hospital.

The second example does a much better job of creating an emotional connection with the reader. These two short paragraphs draw the reader in and open the door for a longer article in which all the benefits and differentiators of ‘Local College’ (including its scholarship opportunities) can be expanded on.


Next time you’re faced with a long list of data and facts about the impact your institution is making in the world, consider telling a story instead. Keep the following in mind:

  • Define common themes among your audience. What’s going on in their lives? What types of situations keep them up at night? What do they care about?
  • Don’t be afraid to get emotional. Nothing creates loyalty to a brand or product like an emotional response.
  • Remember that it’s all about them. It’s a lot easier to communicate all the great things about your institution when your audience feels that you understand them and care about them.

Happy storytelling!