Joe Lazauskas is the co-author (with Shane Snow) of The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming into the Void, and Make People Love You. As its subtitle suggests, the book describes how businesses can create great stories that connect them with their customers. Lazauskas is Director of Content Strategy at Contently, a content marketing firm that helps brands like Google, Lowe’s, and Hilton Hotels  tell their brand stories. We caught up with Lazauskas recently to discuss how middle market companies and leaders can use storytelling to help spur business growth and stakeholder engagement.

Why should storytelling matter for middle market companies and their leaders?

Lazauskas: The customers of your middle market company want to know your story, and understand your “why.” Why do you exist? Why are you doing business? What unique value are you offering them? Stories connect customers and companies in just this way. Middle market companies can pay for marketing, PR, and advertising, but it’s so easy for anyone to tune out all this “interruptive” messages. But with stories, you can actually engage customers so they want to hear more from you, want to learn more about you, and have a deeper relationship with you based on real human connection.

The middle market companies that can tell a good story will have a competitive advantage over rivals who can’t. MIddle market companies should be creating a culture of storytelling, where the leadership team and everyone else tells stories aligned with the values and goals of your company. Our book explains how to do just that.

How are human brains "hard-wired" to connect with stories rather than data?

Lazauskas: There’s neuroscience behind why humans love to hear great stories. When we hear a story, our brain circuitry actually lights up, which can be seen in brain scans. In fact, the neural activity within our brains increases by a factor of five [fivefold] as we hear stories. In addition, a chemical called oxytocin gets released in our brains and makes us feel pleasurable sensations -- we feel things more deeply and care about what we’re hearing, which is empathy. All these positive associations created by the story connect the listener to the storyteller and the brand. Stories are memorable, while random facts or data are quickly forgotten.

What are the basic elements of great storytelling?

Lazauskas: We describe four elements of great storytelling in The Storytelling Edge. The first is relatability. The stories we love are ones we can relate to, where we can identify with the story’s characters or situations because they seem familiar to us and connect with our own experiences. The second element is novelty. In terms of human evolution, new stimuli get our complete attention. This is a survival mechanism -- we’re hard-wired to recognize new things and decide whether they are threats or not.

The third element is tension: something important must be at stake. Aristotle said that the storyteller’s job is to create a gap between what could be and what is, and this tension propels a story.  Readers want tension, uncertainty, change. The last element is fluency. Using big words is not important. The most popular stories are told at a simple level, in easily-understood language. In business, we need to leave the lingo and buzzwords behind. Customers want simple language.

How can middle market companies determine what stories they should be telling their customers?

Lazauskas: Middle market companies need to determine what makes them different, unique in their market, and then offer that unique value to their customers through stories. They should also work to understand the concerns and problems of their customers, and build stories and content that helps address these concerns and problems. It’s about giving customers that unique value you bring to the table. When you do, they will reward you with their attention and their business.

How can middle market companies get better at optimizing their stories using data?

Lazauskas: You need to have the right metrics that measure the success of your stories in growing your business. It’s not about metrics like “page views” or “time on the page” that may not necessarily connect to achieving your business goals. Each middle market company needs to create KPIs for their content that aligns with their particular strategic goals. Pick a few key data points that show how stories/content helps drive your business goals, and share that information within the company.

The most effective way to optimize and improve your content is to create the best content you possibly can, use your data analytic tools to monitor how it’s doing, and then use that feedback to inform what you’ll do next. It’s a dynamic, learning process.

How can middle market companies keep their stories relevant and fresh?

Lazauskas: Continue to focus on your customer’s needs and find new ways to address those needs. Don’t just copy what other brands are doing, because “me-too” content gets tuned out fast. If you Google the headline for a story you’re creating and find that four other competitors have used the same headline, then don’t do the story. Again, customers get excited about new things, or new ways of telling a story. Focus on quality storytelling that leverages what makes you unique as a middle market company. Experiment, test, and learn as you move forward.

What else would you like to tell middle market company leaders about "The Storytelling Edge" and how to get it?

Lazauskas: Storytelling has been a buzzword in business for decades. It continues to remain relevant because our human connection to storytelling is timeless. Stories have driven human behavior for centuries, and will continue to do so, no matter what happens with technology trends and marketing trends.

In today’s digital age, middle market companies and their leaders have more opportunities than ever to stand out from the crowd, spread their messages, connect with stakeholders, and spark change through telling stories. Good stories make us think and feel. They stick in our minds in a way that data never can. Storytelling is a core skill for every middle market business and every business leader, and you should be developing this skill. The Storytelling Edge helps you do that.