What March Madness and Sports Can Teach Us About Storytelling

This post is co-authored with Natalie Shammas.

It's that time of year when strength and endurance are tested, when pride and loyalty are at their peak, and when miracles can happen: March Madness. Competition increases to a whole new level as 64 teams compete to cut down nets and hang banners. Throughout the tournament, unexpected stories about players and teams begin to surface, but the one story that always seems to capture peoples' attention is The Cinderella Story -- a plot line filled with upsets, underdogs, and many busted brackets. These upsets make for stories that elicit powerful emotions in fans.

The deep emotional connection to these games rests less on stats and more on the underdog team's story and journey to beating a top ranked seed.

Engaging people through storytelling is a key skill in leadership. Stories give data a larger sense of context and infuse that information with a sense of meaning and emotional resonance.

And sports is the ultimate serial story that attracts an audience from all walks of life. It's not only the singular wins that keep fans engaged and invested. The stories of the teams and players woven through the years keep us invested and connected at a deeper level.

For example, the Denver Broncos were the underdogs going into Super Bowl 50, which also marked their 8th appearance in a Super Bowl. When they won, John Elway accepted the Lombardi trophy and said, "This one is for Pat," giving tribute to its long-time owner Pat Bowlen. A beautiful moment, its connection to another moment in the Bronco's story gave it deeper meaning -- in 1998, when Bowlen accepted the Lombardi trophy, he said, "This one is for John." (Read about how Pat Bowlen created a winning culture here.)

Sports' ability to attract, engage, and retain fans from all demographics is unparalleled. Fans engage in creating the story in their own individual lives -- how they relate to the players, teams, and sport. And the industry knows how to leverage that power of story in an intentional way.

So what can business -- where brands compete for consumer mindshare and loyalty -- learn from sports about storytelling?

Here are three ideas:

Show the Inside Scoop
After a difficult 2013-2014 season, Duke Blue Planet released a video titled, "The Next Chapter" at the start of the 2014-2015 season. It featured the players talking about the "relentless work ethic" and "unwavering fire within" that it takes to reach a championship. It gave an authentic behind the scenes look at them putting in extra gym time, working hard, and fighting "as a band of brothers." The video ends with the words, "it's time to write our own story," inviting fans to be part of this journey as well.

Through their posts on various social media platforms, Duke Blue Planet made the team relatable. Instead of individual basketball players, the well-framed narrative becomes that of a team of brothers fighting together and supporting each other. This no-glitz-no-glam approach gave fans a deeper appreciation for the team. Through Duke Blue Planet's various media channels, Duke Men's Basketball program gives fans an inside look into the team. And the fans love the posts of their favorite athletes working hard through challenges.

Effortless perfection is out as much as the polished press release. To connect with consumers, brands need to be authentic and incorporate the human vulnerabilities and how they've overcome challenges into their story.

How can you incorporate and frame the behind the scenes human elements into your company's story?

Have an Origin Story
If sharing the inside look is about how you overcome challenges to get to the next chapter, the origin story is about how you got started on this journey.

Kevin Brilliant, Chicago Bulls strategy analyst, illustrates how an origin story can make the journey towards achievement more meaningful and hence, more engaging. Bulls power forward and center, Pau Gasol, has been deeply engaged in supporting children's hospitals. What eliminates the perception of this as a PR gimmick is Gasol's origin story. He was pre-med and almost became a doctor. The Bulls connected the dots between Gasol's interest in helping kids and hospitals with his life-long passion in medicine and saving lives. "It's an authentic facet of Gasol that we are sharing with fans," Brilliant concludes.

By putting a story behind Pau Gasol's purpose, fans connect with Gasol on a more meaningful level by understanding his personal journey.

So as you think about your brand, what is your origin story? What sparked the idea for a product? And how does that tie in with the product's purpose for consumers?

Show the Human Dimension
Last Father's Day, SportsCenter held an interview with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and their fathers, Dell Curry and Mychal Thompson, who were former NBA players. In the interview was also Steph Curry's young daughter, Riley. Showing their interaction with their fathers and children enabled us to relate to them beyond basketball. We connected with them on being parents, on being our parents' children.

Furthermore, we saw their multi-generational narrative in relation to basketball. And in turn, that gave us the opportunities to engage different generations of our families with that story. Many fans have had parents who were fans of Curry and Thompson's fathers. And they are now creating the next generation of fans by bringing their kids to the games.

Another example is the new WNBA team, The Dallas Wings. The team's Vice Chairman and Managing Partner, Chris Christian, a seasoned music producer and 9-time Grammy nominee, knew that in order to attract fans to a team they've never seen play, fans would need to connect with the players on a personal level.

This holiday season, the Wings will release a video that showcases players telling viewers about their favorite holiday traditions and memories. Many of the players will be video-taped at their own homes, showing another dimension beyond basketball. Through this video, fans will be able to connect with the team prior to seeing them play for the first time.

"I learned from 30 year in the music business that fans want to see an get to know their artist personally, and seeing the artist supporting the community," Chris shares with me. "If fans feel they are friends with the artist or players, they become deeper fans or new fans. When a business has a customer that knows the name of the employees and feels a connection to them, they will become a loyal fan."

Brands, without losing their core, have an opportunity to engage consumers through showing different facets that highlight the human dimensions. How will you incorporate those dimensions into the story of your business?

Sports will continue to give us many ways we can better tell stories to effectively connect with our customers. So next time you engage in a sports game or get drawn into the story about a team or a player, be on the lookout for ideas you can apply to your business. And share with me in the comments!

A version of this piece originally appeared in Forbes.

The Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, recently convened a Next Frontier in Sports Roundtable where top scholars and sports industry executives explored the hidden drivers of fan behavior, including the power of stories. Parts of this piece were drawn from the Sports Illustrated's This is Your Brain on Sports podcast that interviewed Sanyin Siang and Kevin Brilliant on insights from that roundtable.

Natalie Shammas is a COLE undergraduate intern and a student manager on the Duke Women's Basketball Team.

Sanyin Siang is the Executive Director of COLE and a faculty member with Duke University's StoryLab, which explores storytelling in the digital age. Sanyin writes about leadership,sports, mentorship, and children's education.