Storytelling is one of the most powerful, influential tools we have at our disposal as marketers. It’s an innate human skill that’s been passed down over thousands upon thousands of years.
Yes despite this, it’s often hugely misunderstood and the term is frequently misused.
In fact most of what we call storytelling, particularly in the context of content marketing, isn’t actually storytelling.
There’s a huge number of very successful blogs and content marketing programmes out there, frequently cited as industry best-practices, that just don’t go near storytelling in any meaningful sense of the word.
Hubspot, Buffer, Moz, Kissmetrics and just about every successful blog aimed at B2B SaaS customers focus on ‘how to’ articles, lists and technical or data-driven posts. They don’t tell stories very often.
There’s nothing wrong with this. What they do is hugely useful to their audience, and it clearly works.
We don’t have to tell stories to be successful at content marketing, but equally we shouldn’t conflate the two principles as content marketing does not necessarily equal storytelling (nor does it need to).
So with that, let’s look at 5 videos that explain what storytelling is, how to do it well, and why it is so powerful.
In this video, Ira Glass, the host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life, boils storytelling down into two basic blocks: An anecdote and a moment of reflection.
Anecdotes have momentum. They’re a sequence of events that take the listener or reader from one situation to the next, with the implicit understanding that the journey will be worth it. The events normally spark a question of ‘why’ in their minds. Why am I being taken on this journey? Why is this character in this situation? What’s unusual about that description?
There is then, at some point during the story, a moment of reflection that reveals the answer to that why. It shares with the reader the point of the story (hopefully to their satisfaction).
You don’t a much simpler – yet useful – definition of storytelling than this.
In this Harvard Business Review interview, Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of the Mandalay Entertainment Group, breaks down several more granular elements of being a great storyteller. He’s particularly focused on spoken word, but I think the points he makes can be transferred to any medium
Firstly – and most importantly – you need to be authentic. What you say has to be congruent with yourself in order for anyone to be persuaded by the message. If you don’t believe it, why should anyone else?
Secondly, you need to actually be interested in who you’re communicating with. That’s very different from being interesting. Be interested. Actually care what the other person needs or wants. What motivates them? Why will your story have a positive impact on them?
Third, you must have a goal. Why are you telling this story? What action do you want to motivate? If you don’t start with the goal in mind, then your story is pretty much pointless, and it certainly can’t be considered ‘purposeful.’
Fourth, there needs to be an interactive element to the story. In a live situation, this would mean active listening or encouraging dialogue and feedback. In other mediums, you’ll need to use other literary or filmmaking techniques to elicit that response action from your audience.
Finally, you need to find a hook – a piece of the story that helps to create an emotional bond with the information to make it memorable, resonant and actionable. This could be anything, from a moment in your own past to a strong metaphor that resonates with your audience.
Andrew Stanton, the filmmaker behind hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and WALL-E, provides more details still on what is involved in good storytelling.
Most importantly, you need to make the audience care. If they don’t care, nothing in the story will stick with them. As he says: “Make me care –please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.”
Good stories also start with a promise. The promise that the story will be worthwhile; that it will lead somewhere and answer any questions it raises at the start.
However along the way, great stories invite the audience to find their own answers, by presenting the sequence of events in a deliberate way. This gets them engaged and ‘bought in’ to the story, because as humans we’re natural problem solvers.
The fourth element that really stood out to me is that characters – and particularly the main protagonist – needs to have a ‘spine’ or an itch they can’t scratch.
This is their underlying motivation that drives all their decisions – good or bad – and it’s what makes them human. It’s why characters often make bad decisions and mistakes that run counter to the rational choice. And it’s what makes them relatable.
I include this video for two reasons.
The first is that it shows the raw power of a well told story. It’s hard to argue with chemistry and the hard scientific proof that stories don’t just have a powerful effect on us – they actually change the physiological makeup of our brains.
Told in a compelling way, stories can quite literally alter our emotional state and directly affect our behaviour.
Secondly, it includes the most classic of story structures, first articulated by Gustav Freytag. The structure contains 5 elements: Exposition; Rising action; Climax; Falling action; and finally Denouement, resolution, revelation or catastrophe.
Last but certainly not least, I include probably my all time favourite TED talk, where Simon Sinek explains how great leaders and great companies inspire action.
While not directly imagined as a video on storytelling, I feel it perfectly sums up all of the main elements from the previous videos on the importance of starting with the end in mind, putting the itch at the centre of the story and making people care. If you only actually watch one of these videos, make it this one!
If you can articulate why you do what you do (not what, not how), then you’ll stand much more of a chance at reaching your audience (and potential customers) at an emotional level that speaks more to their identity than to their rational decision-making brain. This will then help to inspire action.
This is ultimately the power of story: helping to identify and highlight common ground between what you believe as a company and what your customer believes, and connecting the two in a way that is authentic and welcomed.
With a clearer idea of what great storytelling is, hopefully content marketers can make a more explicit decision about whether they want to tell stories; or whether they want to focus more on providing resources, guides and lists etc.
There isn’t a right or a wrong answer to this, and they’re not mutually exclusive, but it is worth understanding they’re not the same thing so you can be clear about your strategy moving forward.