Storytelling: what makes a story powerful?

Storytelling. The word has an aura of excitement and magic that probably explains some of the hype. Storytelling used to make me think of the Odyssey or old men with beards telling tales by camp fires under the stars. These days, I see marketing consultants on stages (with beards) claiming to be Storytellers. 

Is storytelling just a new name for marketing? Will saying the magic word  turn marketers – or anybody – into Storytellers? Does content equal stories? No, no, and no.

Since storytelling is the art of telling a story, the question is: what makes something a good story (and not just ‘content’)? Let’s start with the basics. Most writers agree on the key elements, which might sound familiar. There is a hero, or at least main character, that the audience can identify with. Note: this means the hero should not be yourself or the brand you represent, but the person you want to convert – perhaps a potential customer. Your hero has a goal or desire. But there’s a problem, usually called the challenge – perhaps something your company has a solution for.

The hero is faced with a conflict, which could be part of the challenge. The conflict is the motor of the story. It builds suspense and makes the audience care about what happens next. In the struggle to overcome the challenge and resolve the conflict, the hero usually goes through a personal change (or transformation) and arrives at some kind of insight (sometimes called the revelation). In terms of marketing, you might be offering something that enables customers to transform their business and their lives, once they’ve seen the light.

That’s the compact version.

When creating stories, characters are key: apart from the main character (usually the same as the hero or protagonist), there is usually an antagonist (a bad guy) that stands between the hero and his or her goal. The plot is the sequence of events, basically what happens. Remember that uncertainty of the outcome is what keeps the listener glued to the chair (or smartphone).

A strong story also has a theme, an idea that runs through the story and basically in a few words answers the question “what’s the story about?” For instance, a fintech story could be about freedom – letting people pay as they want, how and when they want.

Finally there is what usually is called the narrative arc, the phases that the plot should take us through:

1. The Setting. Describe or show world where the main character lives before having dealing with the challenge.

2. Rising tension. The series of obstacles the main character has to overcome, usually more and more difficult, with increasingly higher stakes.

3. Climax:Tension peaks. The main character has to make a tough decision which is a turning point for the rest of the story.

4. Resolution:The conflict is resolved either by the main character overcoming it, learning to accept it, or is ultimately defeated by it. The end.

A bit overwhelming? A story can have many moving parts and creating it can be a complex task. But once it’s ready, the story itself can be very simple – simple stories are usually the best. This universal, well-proven recipe for stories that has kept listeners captivated for thousands of years. Stories have been the way to pass on our culture and knowledge to the next generation.

Most – if not all – great stories use this formula, from Star Wars to top TED talks, from the Odyssey to tales by the campfire. Just as successful marketing. ICAs record-long TV commercial series  about a group of people who work in a ICA supermarket kept the Swedish population engaged for decadesOn the international arena, Volvo Trucks and Dove are two examples of recognised brand storytellers

I should add that something powerful can always be used to do good things or bad, as Susan Duncan talks about in her TED-talk the Dark Side of Storytelling.  Stories taken for the truth have manipulated people to allow dictatorships and cause war and terrorism. 

It’s getting clear that most content is not storytelling. An anecdote, or an account of what happened to me on my way to this venue, is usually not a story – at least not the kind we’re talking about here – and telling it does not make you a storyteller.

Presentations rarely make use of storytelling, as they tend to follow the advice “say what you will talk about, talk about it and summarise what you’ve just said.” Revealing the conclusions in the beginning kills the suspense, and without characters, conflicts and real-life events, we have nothing to care about and invest emotionally in. It can still be a great presentation – but it’s not really a story.

What makes some stories grow on their own, retold by their audience? Is it enough that to follow the instructions above? Sorry. Effective stories connect with the reader’s or viewer’s deep motivations such as maintaining their identity, fulfilling their potential and overcoming challenges. So it’s a good idea to find out what motivates your audience and address it, preferably in a different way than your competitors.

Good stories make us recall our own personal memories. We imagine the events of the story as if they were real. When we identify with a story, it’s like it is actually happening to us. This is why it triggers emotions and sticks in our memories when regular marketing doesn’t.  Maybe that’s where the magic happens.

My next blog article will look into why storytelling can be so powerful. The science behind it, facts no fluff.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a third article in the pipeline about the best ways to apply storytelling in B2B content marketing.

Take care!

– Erik

More about storytelling:

Andrew Stanton on TED – the clues to a great story

Scopeby4C – storytelling special issue

Forbes – What storytelling is and is not 

Photo by Dino Reichmuth and Mike Erskine

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