President, The Pollack Group, Adjunct Professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Storytelling is a popular, age-old form of communication—starting from word-of-mouth to early hieroglyphics. It then falls to the storytellers to find the means to penetrate the receiver’s psyche, soul and essence to attain the desired results.
Achieving leadership in storytelling lies in how well the audience feels understood and whether the story can illuminate, inform, clarify, enlighten, influence or encourage them in a way that is authentic to your brand. Therefore, it’s important to always key into the traits, characteristics and values of your audience. Stories need to be cleverly crafted toward the goal of triggering the desired action—be it in purchasing, supporting a cause, or building or contributing to a trend.
Just short of a decade ago, when I first started to dig deeper into the revolutionary realities of a new generation of consumers coming into the marketplace, largely prompted by an acute realization that the oldest Gen Zers were then just about to enter college, I felt that the public relations and marketing worlds were largely unprepared for the onslaught of this new type of consumer. My curiosity led me to write and publish a book on how to interact with this new generation, Disrupted, From Gen Y to iGen: Communicating with the Next Generation.
Today, the oldest in the Gen Z generation is 25 years old. We now have a whole new generation who have moved into the workplace, are walking into retailers, buying stuff on e-commerce sites or starting new businesses. When I published Disrupted, the numbers for this generation were around 23 million in the U.S. alone. Today, Gen Z has reached 68 million. Gen Zers are also broadly diverse and have a great influence over the money-spending decisions in their households.
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Recognizing that this generation is unlike any other generation that came before them, it is essential to speak their language. They will expect civil discourse to connect on a human level and redefine what matters, how it matters and to whom it matters to broaden their perspective.
As brands explore storytelling approaches, it is important to recognize what Gen Z relates to most and what they will listen to and tune out. For example, brands tend to capture Gen Z’s attention when they show a commitment to sustainability or creating a more equitable business. However, leaders should recognize that this generation likes to be action-oriented and expects the brands they shop from to be the same.
The storyteller needs to note that Gen Zers will gladly and loudly support brands they believe represent their values and lifestyle image. Of course, this connection must be an authentic one and, when earned, can catapult brands beyond what other generations would do. Similarly, they will be just as loud when a brand deceives them or, in some way, goes against their values.
It is increasingly important that brands understand their audiences and the repercussions of their decisions. In today’s climate, it is not enough for brands to commit to sustainability or a more equitable business. To connect with Gen Z, you must go beyond commitment and take measurable action to ensure that you’re making “becoming a good company” a priority.
These are digital natives for whom diversity and inclusion are the norms. Stories need to be built with that premise in mind. Communication professionals with the greatest in-depth understanding of these expectations, who can relate to this generation and adapt to Gen Z’s need for human interaction skills and desires for immersive experiences, will emerge as leaders. As younger audiences celebrate the sight-and-sound technology that eclipses stare-at-the-wall museum experiences, immersive experiences will dominate. An example of an immersive experience is the traveling Van Gogh exhibit, which affords visitors a sense of being in the center of the projected art and becoming “it.”
Unsurprisingly, Gen Z’s digital devices are a virtual channel for communicating. The phone has become an extension of the person and the platforms and apps within it. Naturally, this has implications for attention spans.
Understanding the “wants” of this generation helps choose the words and means to reach them. Gen Zers tend to be more practical than previous generations and want to make a difference and have a purpose. They’re noted as being independent thinkers and don’t “drink the Kool-Aid” just because an institution has perceived authority. This generation has come to suspect dishonesty and prize authenticity, and as such, a less than forthcoming story will alienate the average Gen Zer.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting that Gen Z also appreciates face-to-face communication. This is because it’s still the most effective way of communicating. So, stories via events, panel formats, symposiums, etc., are another avenue to reach this group.
This generation increasingly feels a collective responsibility for people and brands working together on environmental and societal improvements for a better, healthier world. But don’t just try to hook them without follow-through—Gen Zers will see right through you if your messages lack transparency and credibility.
Leadership is achieved when the stories you tell resonate and the desired results trigger action. It can be achieved with a deep understanding of the power of the stories we tell. As a result, soft skills—or “human skills,” as I prefer to call them—have never been more relevant or necessary.
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Author: Stefan Pollack, Forbes Councils Member