I love nothing more than to escape to an exciting destination holding a special someone’s hand and a Google map full of things to see and do. But to me, traveling isn’t about lounging on a beach with a good book and a chilled cocktail. Traveling to me is an adventure, a journey into another time, another place and another lifetime.
I believe places teach. They teach us about what keeps a story alive a hundred and maybe a thousand years later and what makes it compelling. The places I’ve been and those I plan on visiting all tell a story, about the lives we lived, the things we loved and have grown to love, the things we’ve lost and those who’ve shaped that journey so today, I’d like us to take a look at what traveling can teach marketers about storytelling.
Real perception has depth
They way we experience the world around us and pour that experience back into the world tends to be heavily filtered by not just our perception and subjectivity but by who we’re speaking with and what mood we’re in.
Your description of a weekend in Italy’s countryside is likely to be much more enthusiastic, descriptive and detailed when speaking with a close friend than a random colleague at work, on a murky morning before you’ve had coffee. That’s because you’re selling one point in the first story and getting it over with in the other.
In marketing this translates into the difference between a copy that reads High-quality coffee, imported from Italy and one that reads Bold, flavourful Italian coffee with an aroma that carries you into the Italian sunset.
Stories are intended to grab hold of your audience and transport them in another setting, through a specific narrative. If there’s no depth or dimension to either, the magic never happens and the experience is bland, unappealing, and uninteresting.
As opposed to going back and forth from work on a daily basis, walking around in a different city makes us curious to experience it, with all its sounds, colours, smells, views, people and tastes.
So when we do tell others about the trip, we have a lot more detail available, whether we choose to share it or not. The products you’re sharing likely do too. From how they’re used to how they’re built, who builds them and the hands they end up in, storytelling in marketing can have just as much depth as a nighttime shot taken on the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
Fiction is the spice of our memories
Science tells us that our memories are a Swiss cheese collection of pictures, sounds, smells, and feelings tied together with a yarn of inferences, deductions and assumptions. Unless an environmental cue has a big impact, like teeth-chattering cold, you’re likely to think: I was wearing my cute, blue sweater that night so it must have been chilly.
Our mind remembers the headlines and fills in the blanks as best it can. Sometimes this can mean slight discrepancies between how you and your partner remember the waiter at the cute little terrace right next to the Trevi Fountain. Sometimes it can mean you will forget you had dinner altogether and remember the things that stimulated your senses a lot more.
When we’re in a familiar setting, we’re a lot more likely to remember details, because there’s a lot less new stuff to record but when we travel somewhere for the first time, everything is new so our brains can have trouble deciding what to jot down.
Our spotty memory is a great beginning for a fictional story. Sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly. As storytellers, this is a great opportunity to let our minds explore what could have been. Draw on the key moments in your own experiences to create a brand new story.
Let’s say you’re trying to create content for a small business that makes Venetian masks in the US and, like me, remember that when you visited Venice the one thing that stayed with you wherever you went was the music. This means that the defining element of your experience was sound so grab a camera, pick a playlist that screams Venice and start creating videos about how the masks are made, the atmosphere in the shop, short videos of people trying on the masks, etc.
Better yet, put some of the same music in your shop as background music and set the mood not just for people consuming your content but for those who visit the shop and work in it. In other words, build the Venetian experience drawing on your own.
True experience blends all our senses
Reality is a marriage between all our senses and the most powerful experiences learn to use them in sync. While one sense wins over another in an episodic memory, say when you remember what the sun setting over Barcelona looked like, the sum of all senses contributes to how we feel about our time there.
For instance, for me Barcelona is a wonderful celebration of diversity. Diversity of people, art, architecture, spirit, music, taste, and history. I vividly remember the rainbow of people, languages, smiles, and savors walking down Las Ramblas. I can clearly hear and smell the waves rustling under my feet as I crossed the bridge in the marina at dawn. I can feel the excitement of literally walking through history at the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and, by no stretch of the imagination, seeing people’s lives, centuries ago, unfold before my eyes.
As a random human being, I’m hopelessly in love with this place and I’m sharing how I feel about it. As a storyteller, I’m showing you a melancholic overview shot of the city and telling you three little descriptive stories unfolding beneath that sunset, trying to take you with me down a memory lane you’ve never been before.
In marketing, it’s our job to imagine for and with our audience because we’re sharing dreams, just as much as we’re sharing facts.
Great stories don’t have to be linear
The easiest way to recall a journey is from start to finish, trying to squeeze as many chronological memories as we can in between. While this might help us keep things straight in our heads, great stories aren’t necessarily chronological. In fact, time might be all too relative or not a factor at all.
Take London and its mix of old and new, wrapped up in busy and topped off with enough lights to put a casino to shame. London puts on a great show. From experience-centred amusement parks like the London Dungeon to the 30 minute plays put on at the Tower of London, it does a fantastic job of pulling you out of one time and dropping you in another.
As you’re focused on the experience of standing trial in the 17th century for stealing sheep (no, I’m not kidding), admiring a painting of JFK on butterflies (no, still not kidding) or walking around the actual heads Madame Tussaud used for her wax figures (yes, this time I might be), your timeline is overwhelmed by the timelines you’re reliving.
As a traveller, this will earn you a wonderful feeling of being lost in time. As a storyteller, this teaches you that time in stories is relative. You can mix them up, stick with a non-chronological one or don’t even include time at all. If it’s not a factor that draws your audience into the story, let their senses do the job instead.
There’s always another angle
Probably one of the most valuable lessons traveling will teach you is that with enough material, the number of angles is limitless. There’s always another perspective, another focus point, another thing to show, another emotion to convey.
Let’s say you’re working on copy for a travel agency and have to write about the Colosseum in Rome. Aside from the obvious historical and architectural angles, you could come up with a hoard of topics that relate to controversies around its restauration, why we still care about it, different points of view on why people should or should not visit it, boring things like having to stand in line for hours in the scorching sun to get in, photography tips, the Colosseum reimagined, how it’s featured in movies and so on, and on, and on.
You could even use it as a simple backdrop for another focus point in your story, such as movie adventures taking place in or around the Colosseum. It’s important to keep in mind that just because you’re creating content inspired by something, it doesn’t have to be entirely about that something.
In fact, if you keep drumming on about the same point, people are much more likely to get sick and tired of your stories than if you create adjacent stories that simply include your topic as a backdrop.
The Bottom Line
Just like history, traveling around the worlds or just outside your backyard, can give you an entirely new perspective on the world and how to tell its story. From learning to engage all your senses in experiencing it, to training your mind and quill to do the same thing when you use your memory and imagination to take others on the same journey with you, traveling can open your heart and mind to truly powerful stories.