Does your website tell a story?

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 7, 2012

Article read time: 5 minutes

I was chatting with a client recently about how to structure the content on his website.  In particular, he was pondering the options for what to display on each of the slides on his homepage.  After much discussion he took a look at our website and said that “I really like you slides.  Not just because they look nice, but because they tell a story”.

This observation got me thinking and asking questions such as “why is it a good thing if our slides tell a story?” and “should people tell more stories on their websites?

Stack of story books
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After much deliberation I decided to consult David Williams of Enlumen, an expert in the theory behind storytelling as a communication device and how to use it in organisational success.  And the answers were really insightful.

Why is storytelling important in a website design?

According to David “Storytelling cultures predate written cultures by thousands of years and the brain is adept at picking up information from stories”.  Unlike raw information, stories package up information in a way that makes it easy for us to imagine the scenario, understand the context of facts and events, linking information together in our minds and therefore forming a clearer mental picture. 

What’s more, the ability to imagine a story and understand the circumstances surrounding particular ideas or events makes them inherently more believable and easier to remember.  It also makes it much easier for us to mentally put ourselves in the story and imagine possible scenarios for how things might have been if we were in the story, or how things could turn out if we enter this story going forward.

It therefore makes sense that if we tell stories on our website then it will be easier for people to understand what we do, to remember key facts about us, to engage with our brand and develop trust, and to form a mental picture of how it would feel to work with us.

What makes an effective story?

Your school English teacher probably told you that every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.  That’s pretty fundamental.  But what makes a story really powerful?

I asked this to David and he said that “The stories need to be true, and more than “Janet and John” story book style – which are easily dismissed.  If you take an open, honest approach then people will find it easier to engage with and believe in the story, especially if you reference actual people and events”.

It is tempting to focus on only good things, but actually it can be more effective to talk about problems.  If you only say good things then it is inherently less believable, but if you explain problems and then show how the problems were overcome it is much more effective.  The story is easier to believe, but it also shows how you are able to deal with difficult situations and turn them into something positive.  The stories of the hero who battles through against the odds and wins out are more engaging than ones about plain sailing.

How can I include stories on my website?

You might be thinking that your website is focussed at serious business users and storytelling just doesn’t sound appropriate.  But think again.  It doesn’t matter what market your customers are in, they are human, and stories will help engage them more effectively.

Here are 6 ways to use stories online:

  1. Sliders – It is very common now for websites to have a slider on the homepage, but it is not so common to think about why you have a slider or what should go on it.  Think out your slider like a really, really basic silent movie, or flip book animation.  You have about 3-5 scenes in which to tell the story that will grab the interest of your target customers, introduce your brand and motivate them to want to work with you.  Get creative and see what you can do.
  2. Videos – If you have any corporate videos or product demonstration videos, then they present the perfect opportunity to tell real stories about your brand and your products.
  3. Testimonials – A great way to earn the trust of potential customers is to quote existing and past clients saying how great you are.  But Sean D’Souza of calls these “Lazy Testimonials”. You can make testimonials more effective by framing them as a story, like a mini-case study that sets the scene of when they worked with you, the background to the relationship, problems that were overcome etc.  It helps people to understand the depth of your work and what really makes you so special.  D’Souza states that it can even help you get better clients. While a simple quote of a client saying how great you are is OK, putting that quote in context is even better.  David Williams suggests sending clients a carefully structured questionnaire after each project, the answers to which can form a mini story of your success.  And of course you can also do the same with video testimonials.
  4. Product Information – Every product and service has a story behind it.  The need that led to its creation, the struggle that you went through to bring it to market, and the benefits and successes now that you have got it there. 
  5. Company Overview – Many ‘About Us’ pages provide a very dry factual timeline of the company formation and success, which is interesting to an auditor or historian, but perhaps not that exciting to a potential customer.  Tell the story of why the business was formed, the challenges you have overcome, the people involved and how it has evolved to what it is today.
  6. Blog posts – This is probably the easiest place on a website to tell stories, since you are not confined by the conventions and rules of the main website pages and you can take a more personal approach to your writing.  Think of every post as a short story about a topic that you’re passionate about.

So what happens next?

Well, having woken up to the benefits of stories in making our websites more effective, and having seen some examples of how where we could use stories, I think we all need to go away and take another look at our websites to see how many opportunities we have missed.

Look at all of the different types of information on your website and ask yourself, “Could it be better if we framed it as a story?”  We bet you’ll find a few opportunities, and no doubt so will we.

If you want to show us how you have used storytelling to great effect online, please feel free to tell us your story in the comments.