How we win with story platforms

Stories are powerful, but only if you tell the right ones. Here’s how.

“Storytelling,” once again, is the most popular buzz word in progressive politics and social-justice campaigning. It’s official: the right stories will win. Far less clear, however, is how to find the right story every time and how to reliably create and spread those stories to achieve the strongest connection and the greatest impact with your audiences.

Most progressive storytelling these days is a matter of throwing content at walls while praying that something sticks. It’s random lightning strikes, not reliable, tested process. You can’t tell a story you can’t find. Yet almost no one has a formal process for finding a campaign’s or a cause’s most effective core narrative.

Stories always have been and will be more powerful drivers of change and persuasion than talking points or ads. This is even more true in a post-advertising, digital world, where advertising-like messages are failing completely. (The Wall St. Journal commented last year that corporate America is not sure “whether advertising works at all anymore.”)

As digital became dominant over the last 10 years, someone had to figure out how to make stories into reliable tools for winning. My two partners and I did it and now we’re sharing it through A More Perfect Story, a firm that provides story-driven, audience-centered strategy.

Telling connected stories to create change

Pursuing separate ventures and disciplines in the past decade or so, we’ve developed and continually tested our strategic approach. It is part science — behavioral research, market data, analytics, content and cultural audits. It is part art and creativity — shaping metaphor, crafting narrative arcs, working with art and artists, creating stories and executing experiences across all media, from films and Facebook to street theater and community meetings. Now, at A More Perfect Story, the process is fully integrated, combining learning, strategies and expertise from content marketing, entertainment marketing and cultural organizing for social and political causes.

The object, in its essence, is to discover everything we can know about the audience and to gather from them the thousands of unconnected stories about how the world works in relation to a cause or campaign. To distill those stories into one core narrative that can unite the largest possible community around the cause and to use that core story to tell and spread thousands of connected stories to create change.

Our approach is new, but the elements have been proven to work again and again. While finding and refining the elements of our process, we have employed storytelling and cultural organizing to reliably change people’s behavior and beliefs for dozens of for-profit clients and nonprofits.

Story platforms create lasting relationships between audiences and a campaign or a candidate

At the heart of this new practice is a disciplined approach to finding the “core story” of a campaign, candidate or cause. Each core narrative is something fundamental and unique — the singular, unchanging thread that most powerfully narrates the relationship between a candidate or an idea and the audience.

We call this core narrative the “story platform.” Typically, it’s a few words that encapsulate the unchanging, emotionally connecting narrative essence upon which all of a campaign’s or cause’s stories are built. It is not a tagline; not ad copy. It usually is never seen by the audience. It is, instead, the synthesis of the stories your audience tell themselves and the story you want to tell them.

Properly created, it does not change unless the culture shifts; properly used, it produces executions and experiences that are cumulative in their impact because each separate tale ladders back to the core.

It represents the common narrative thread that will be woven into every story a cause or campaign will tell. It is the central, emotional plotline that functions as a differentiating narrative heart, much as George Lucas’s many tales of Star Wars are all built on the one core story of a secret mystical connection to a universal force that can work for either good or evil.

How to find a story platform

Our approach to finding your story platform is a disciplined, collaborative research and workshop process that has three phases and typically takes six to eight weeks to complete (though abbreviated processes are possible). The final output is a detailed strategic map to winning near-term campaigns while helping to change the culture longer-term. Delivered as a “Story Strategy” document, the plan lays out how and why you arrived at your story platform, how to work with the platform to rapidly produce any kind of execution, how to use your story platform to inspire others to create content that drives your campaigns and how to spread all these stories across all media channels, digital-first, but also traditional if called for.

Here’s how it goes:

Phase 1 — Pre-Workshop Research. The first 2 to 3 weeks of the process are focused on researching what we call the “ABCCs”:

  • Audience: Everything begins and ends with the audience, starting with their view of reality; the narratives they use to explain their own relationship (or refusal to have one) with an idea, cause, mission, candidacy. Audience research extends to a wide range of relevant data drawn from voter files, market research and one-on-one interviews with selected audience members and stakeholders. A pop culture audit also takes place, locating the audience’s connections to music, film, books, media and other relevant forms of popular art.
  • Brand: The promises, attributes and benefits of the idea, cause, campaign or candidate seeking to influence or connect with the audience. This should include the audience’s perceptions of the campaign, audits of any content previously created and distributed and so on.
  • Competition: The attributes and audience-perceptions of any ideas, campaigns, actions or products claiming to do what you are claiming to do. One critical question to answer with this part of the research is how, exactly, is your campaign different from all the others that touch the same space.
  • Culture: In addition to the audience-specific pop culture audit described above, this research outlines the broader cultural context of the idea, campaign or candidate and how it raises barriers or builds on-ramps to the goal of engaging and persuading audiences.

Phase 2 — The Workshop Day: When research is complete, the workshop is held. (More than one workshop can be used, particularly if multiple regions and differing cultures are involved.) The workshop is either half-a-day or a full day. Roughly 12 to 20 participants are carefully chosen to represent every significant discipline from the campaign team. The workshop is not a focus group, but rather a marketing/communicating exercise about understanding audiences and how to engage them as well as an exercise in creating internal consensus around a core story that will define the campaign and its goals. The workshop exercises are set in a sequence that leads the campaign team to uncover the information and make the decisions necessary to creating the most effective story platform. The exercises used range from very familiar exercises to completely unfamiliar ones involving metaphor, anecdotes and mythic archetypes.

Some (but not all) of the exercises used in every workshop:

S.W.O.T. ANALYSIS — Understanding where we are today.

This familiar strategy exercise warms up the group with a quick opener to confirm basic information about where things stand and where we want to be headed.

THE MIGHTY METAPHOR — Using metaphors to tell the story.

Breakout groups use descriptive language to expand the accepted notions of how the campaign is expressed and what it is. The breakout groups come back together and all metaphors are read aloud. The group decides which metaphors are most provocative and useful. Typically, the group will be asked to devise metaphors about how the campaign and its objects are viewed today and how the campaign wants them viewed in the future.

ARCHETYPE — Defining your personality.

The group is introduced to a set of 12 archetypes based on the marketing classic “The Hero and the Outlaw.” The group’s task is to settle on the campaign’s archetype — the one that best personifies the campaign’s character and how the campaign will relate to the audience.

THE AUDIENCE(S) — Establishing and understanding the target audience(s).

Reviewing the research together, the group creates one or more personas for the primary audience, any secondary audiences and any sub-segments of those audiences. In this exercise, the group is urged to find common denominators among seemingly disparate segments. The goal is to reduce segmentation and seek the broadest possible community, not to atomize the audience.

AUDIENCE JOURNEYS — Understanding the audience’s media behavior and exactly how we interact with them.

The group maps out where and how the audiences will encounter the campaign online and offline. The output is a set of journeys from touchpoint to touchpoint. This exercise is invaluable when creating paid and unpaid media plans for the cause.

STORY CIRCLES — Bringing values to life through storytelling

The campaign’s five or six most important traits, promises or values are agreed upon and placed in the center of the circles. The group then fills in the stories and descriptors that define those core traits and give the audience reasons to believe them.

CONCEPT MOUNTAIN — Drilling down to our true differentiators

The group surfaces all the promises and attributes of the campaign, cause, mission or candidate and drills down past the stuff most others already have to the one or two unique features that truly differentiate what you’re doing from what everybody else is doing or has done. This exercise produces the essential focus on what’s really different about your idea/approach/promise/vision.

Phase 3 — Creating the Story Platform and all Deliverables: The integrated team at A More Perfect Story uses the key decisions, anecdotes and conversations of the workshop to create the story platform. Along with the story platform, the AMPS team identifies what we call the “story pillars” or “rich storytelling areas” — the subject areas that will be the focus of the cause’s storytelling. With the story platform and pillars finalized, the workshop and research work is done and you have the foundation for all the content that flows from the platform. Following this exercise, the team from A More Perfect Story can lay out the near-term and long-term strategy in great detail — the stories to be told, the art and artists to be organized, the media plan to be executed, the social platforms to be leveraged and so on.

Strategy doesn’t slow anything down.

The past master marketers of the world, the likes of Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, achieved dominance with the discipline of market research, relentless measurement and strict adherence to process. The rigidity of their approach took them to the top and is now dragging them down because they’ve been unable to pivot as media and audiences have changed. Still, they teach the important lesson that strategy and process are critical.

The old processes of the advertising age are failing now, but that doesn’t mean a disciplined approach to a clear strategy isn’t still critical to winning in the post-advertising age. Storytelling can’t be a reliable approach without a tested, repeatable process for finding the stories to be told and how to tell them. The story platform process provides that essential set of tools and produces well defined narrative strategies that lead to immediate action.

In the end, pausing to create such an effective strategy never slows a campaign down. Strategy — knowing where you’re going and how to get there — always shortens the journey and magnifies the impact of everything you do.

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