Storytelling is powerful. We, our clients and our readers know that, and more and more brands are beginning to wake up to this too. Here is data from Google, showing how searches for ‘storytelling marketing’ have increased over time, more than tripling in two years:
But all too often, there’s a lot of discussion about the theory of storytelling and how it’s so great without any pointers for businesses as to how to actually use it effectively.
So instead of waffling on about the ideals of using storytelling in business, I wanted to teach the principles that we use ourselves when crafting our stories on Gadabouting.
This will be a three part series: firstly I’ll talk about the foundations of sketching out a great story. Then I’ll go on to explore the media logistics of producing it, before concluding with how you can build a distribution strategy for it.
So let’s get started. (I like a simple pencil and paper for this so you can rip, tear, rearrange and sketch without hindrance, although it’s completely up to you).
The Three Pillars
Like anything of solidity and structure, your story has to be built on solid foundations, where all parts complement and reinforce each other. These three pillars are constant over thousands of years of human history: as the psychologist Jonathan Gotschall says, “For as long as there have been humans…the fundamentals of successful storytelling have not changed at all.”
Empathy: Make the audience identify with the characters and step into their shoes. The best way to do this is to use a figure that is recognisable to them, such as a familiar family figure of a mother or father. For maximum impact, it’s especially powerful to use a grandmother or a grandfather figure, causing your audience to invoke the past which the human brain filters out as being better than it actually was. See Art Markman PhD for more on this cognitive peculiarity.
We love rooting for the underdog: a vulnerable character with flaws. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the storytelling book. Think of David vs. Goliath; Aesop’s the tortoise and the hare; the bullied kid at school who finally seeks revenge. We want to see them as the victors - they deserve it! We’ll use that idea later to build our story.
Plot: Now you have your character(s), it’s time to build the world around them. What are they doing? Where are they going? Where have they been? What are their struggles? What do they see, touch, smell, experience? What are their fantasies, desires, aims, goals? Place them in a world and bring that vividly to life.
Emotion: Now this is how you really get into your audience’s skin. Make your world so vivid and believable that they laugh or cry (both if you can). Have your characters do silly things, put them into hilarious, farcical situations or situations where life is a daily struggle. Amaze them at the strength of your character, or what they can do.
What doesn’t matter so much: the passage of time in the story. We’re not concerned as to what day of the week it is or in temporal continuity here - the aim is to utterly immerse the audience in the story and lift them away from day-to-day concerns.
Important: through empathy, plot and emotion, make it so your brand is empowering the characters here. What does it enable them to do and feel? How does it improve their lives?
So, there’s the theory. That should give you plenty of ideas to get going on crafting your story. But let’s see it in action with an example story, communicated through a video, that I just sketched out:
The business: a big UK energy firm, who has been battered in the media over their latest price increases due to the rising wholesale cost of gas and electricity, needs to tell its story. In reality, it spends millions of pounds per year on helping vulnerable, low-income people to lower their heating bills. But this is not being communicated to the average man on the street.
Empathy: Gladys lives alone in her 1960s bungalow: a snowy-haired, bespectacled lady of around eighty pottering around on the linoleum kitchen floor in two woollen cardigans and a pair of tweed brown slippers. She is slightly hunched. It’s a cold winter’s day, of which there have been many in the UK over the last few years. She is visibly chilly, moving arthritically.
A picture is painted of a dignified elderly lady struggling to cope in the cold. Sympathy and pity are the feelings created in the audience; extremely primal abilities that mark us out as a caring species. A grandmother figure is evolved: someone who we all know and love, and who we would never wish to come to any harm. It is unfair on her.
Plot: Soft, solo piano music is used to set a quiet scene. After the camera follows her around her home for ten seconds, Gladys is interviewed on camera. Intimate shots are used to bring the audience close to her, with a soft focus shot of the creases in her face. “We bought this house in 1972, so I’ve lived here for more than forty years now. Of course, growing up before the war we didn’t even have central heating - just a fireplace. But when you’re younger and more able, it doesn’t matter so much. Now though, with Roger gone and my daughter only able to visit now and then, it is harder, yes.”
A friendly team from the energy company are then seen knocking on the frosty door. They pop in for a visit and a cup of tea to tell Gladys that she’s entitled to help with insulating her home, and also the installation of a smart meter to better help her control her energy usage. The installation team arrive a few days later, and we see them working on her home, installing cavity wall and roof insulation. This is complex stuff, certainly nothing Gladys could have done on her own.
After the work is done, there is another interview with Gladys, with the room lit more warmly and her visibly happier:
“It’s just so much better now - the heat doesn’t just vanish like it used to and the draughts have all gone as well. It’s much more comfortable for me. My friends enjoy visiting me more too, and I can enjoy my home so much more now with Christmas on the way.”
There’s then a closing voiceover. The tone is humble, and warm. It’s not bragging, but instead expressing common humanity with the audience.
“We’ve helped thousands more like Gladys over the last few years, installing extra insulation for free into their homes to keep them warm and offering them advice on how to use energy. In fact, we’ve spent over £100m in the last two years alone on low income households, more than any other company. We know that energy price increases are never welcome, and we avoid them as far as we can. But we are doing everything we can to help the most vulnerable in society.”
Emotion: The audience is taken on a classic story of the humble and downtrodden finding satisfaction. They are saddened by Gladys’ evident suffering and they want her to be happier! This is her home of more than forty years for God’s sake!
They warm to her as they identify with her plight, and also to the energy company for helping her. Their attitude changes towards them, now understanding that they are compassionate, caring, and above all, simply human.
Takeaway: Cast yourselves - the business - as the heroes of the saga. The creators of the story; the facilitators of promoting good over hardship and suffering. You’re not just a profit making structure like pure economists believe: you are a organisation doing great work in the world, bringing joy to thousands. Storytelling convinces and spreads this message naturally like no other format: all you have to do is follow the three pillars.