Is your brand ‘story’ sending people to sleep?

I was flicking through Twitter (as you do) and among the usual posts about Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian were several about corporate storytelling. Nothing new there. The buzz around telling your brand ‘story’ (as opposed to resorting to corporate waffle) is pretty old news. But it still surprises me how many still haven’t got it nailed.

I went to a great talk by Tim Rich a while a go and what I learnt has stood me in good stead. So I thought I’d share what he explained.

Ready? Is everyone sitting down? Then I shall begin…

‘The battle against abstraction.’

The reason why storytelling became a marketing buzzword is because corporate speak is so dire and meaningless that everyone stopped believing it. (These are my words btw.)

Imagine a sentence like this:

‘Acme believes in solutions that optimise the experiential business owner and actionise a revolution in market growth.’*

*(I wrote this too. I’m a copywriter. Call me.)

What happens — and this is real science by the way — our brain interprets this as ‘waaa waaa waaa’, which (amazingly) is the perfect frequency for promoting thoughts of what you would do if you won the lottery. Great for you. Bad for the organisation.

So dumping this dodgy language and replacing it with nice, warm stories that sound human and real was a kind of revolution.

What went wrong?

Nothing went wrong. It’s just everyone started describing their comms as ‘storytelling’ and then wrote the same old crap. ‘Corporate description’ is not a story.

So what is a story?

This is where Tim came up with a handy check list. Basically a story should follow this pattern:

CHALLENGE — Something has had to be overcome.
ACTION — People carry out actions (specific tangible things) to react to the challenges.
TRANSFORMATION — The world changes because of their actions (the heroes also change).

So, if you are comms person and you’re hunting around under the carpet for a client’s ‘story’, the first place you should look is the ‘challenges’ they face. That is where the drama is. (It is worth mentioning here, that clients generally don’t like drama. They are not cast members in a US Real Housewives series. Nevertheless, this is the first step towards writing comms that customers will feel in their stomach, rather than in the back of their throat.)

Ok, so what is a good story?

Good stories are:

EVOCATIVE — brings in emotion and feeling
MEMORABLE — people remember a good story

Also, move away from the abstract and draw out the real.

A good example that Tim mentioned is the classic J R Hartely old Yellow Pages ad.

Aww. That was lovely, wasn’t it? Now let’s break the story down.

CHALLENGE — lovely old J R Hartely wants to find a copy of his book, but it’s so tiring going round all the shops. :-(
ACTION — he starts using the Yellow Pages to call them from home.
TRANSFORMATION — he is no longer downbeat! :-)

(FYI this ad was so successful it was redone in 2011 with a DJ trying to find one of his mixes. Good stories are eternal — just ask Shakespeare.)

Anything else?

Yes. Find the fire in your belly. Why does your organisation exist? What is your existential heart?

What are the main obstacles of a good story?

A classic example, Tim gave, are companies that become embarrassed by profit or the services they provide. Instead they talk about wanting to minimise their environmental impact, or how they give back to communities. (I guess the key here is knowing who your key audience is and how they relate to your business goals.)

eg ‘Service is our passion. People, our strength’
No, no, no! Already thoughts of winning the lottery start meandering into your reader’s brain. Are you telling your company’s story or the National Lottery’s?


Get to the root of why your client are doing what they do.

It’s hard to make big business the hero in a story. But they key is in the CHALLENGE, then how it was acted on.

If you need any further help on writing a good story, go read the whole of Euripides’s plays. Now, that’s what I call a good story.

(Or watch Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor).

Originally published at

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