I want to tell you a story
Why has ‘storytelling’ become such a big deal in comms and marketing circles, and what are the key ingredients of a really successful storytelling campaign?
If you’re sitting comfortably, Fraser Allen will begin…
Illustration Andrew Gibbs
It was a brisk autumn morning and brown leaves were kicking about in the courtyard as we arrived for the presentation. We walked towards the grey, concrete building clutching portfolio bags and silently rehearsing our lines. If you’ve ever pitched for business, you will understand the adrenalin-fuelled anticipation that accompanies these occasions.
I was with two colleagues. We’d been invited by a large financial institution to pitch an idea to a senior executive who we’d never met before. When we arrived in his office, he was pacing around like a bear in a cage, deep in thought. Before we’d even had a chance to introduce ourselves, he turned to us and firmly but politely said: “Let me make one thing clear. I don’t want to hear your pitch, I want to hear your story.”
Now, when you’re just about to launch into something you have prepared with great care, and something which can only really be described as ‘a pitch’ … that’s not what you want to hear.
Billy Connolly once said that all Mexican food is the same, it’s just folded differently. So we did some quick refolding. Instead of turning a tortilla into a quesadilla, we turned our pitch into a story.
It all ended happily ever after but what really struck us at the time was how the concept of storytelling had taken off even in this relatively conservative establishment. It was the story that counted, nothing else mattered.
If you work in comms and marketing, you can’t escape talk of storytelling at the moment. It features in just about every conference going, and marketing consultants are suddenly reinventing themselves as ‘brand storytellers’. Even Coca-Cola (a moderately successful soft drink manufacturer based in the US) has repositioned itself as a ‘sharer of stories’.
So what’s the big deal? After all, storytelling is something deeply human and instinctive that we all do every day and have done since before the dawn of civilisation. As the author Philip Pullman once put it: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
What really struck us at the time was how the concept of storytelling had taken off even in this relatively conservative establishment. It was the story that counted, nothing else mattered.
Well I have a theory, and it’s closely connected with the rapid change in communications technology that civilisation is currently swept up in. There is so much stuff going on around us. We’re surrounded by the constant buzz of digital communication but we lack the time to delve deep, so we snack on bites of information instead. We rush around, we want to look smart and sometimes we feel vulnerable. There’s a lot to take in and, as Nathalie Nahai explains elsewhere in issue one, that’s hard on our brain.
The thirst for storytelling is a response to this unfamiliar noise that surrounds us. Many of us, probably all of us, yearn for an authoritative voice to emerge from the noise, sit us down by the campfire and put everything into context by telling us a story, using conventions we all understand. That’s why everyone seems to be talking about storytelling, and applying it to comms and marketing campaigns. And inevitably, some people are doing it really well, most people are doing it okay-ish, and some are doing it really badly.
So how do you create a truly effective storytelling strategy? Well the first step is probably not to ask a comms or marketing consultant. The best people to ask are those who really know how to tell a great story: authors, scriptwriters, playwrights and even journalists.
As a journalist myself, it’s creative thinkers like these that I turn to. Here are eight key ingredients of powerful storytelling that I’ve learned from them.
The story comes first – everything else is just implementation
Technology gets people very excited but it can also be a dazzling distraction. Too much time, money and energy is often invested in the infrastructure – what a website looks like, the functionality, the branding and keeping all the stakeholders happy. Meanwhile, the most important thing – the story – gets squashed or overlooked.
The concept of ‘content marketing’ has become big business in recent years, but it’s a strange phrase. ‘Content’ suggests filler. It suggests you build this big media machine and then stuff it with content. But that’s the wrong way round. The story must come first, then you find the best way to communicate it (or ‘market’ it). It’s so important to invest time, talent and experience in the story. That is the big difference between campaigns that are outstandingly effective … and the rest.
Make sure it’s bloody interesting
That’s obvious isn’t it? Then again, if it is obvious, why is there so much bad brand storytelling out there?
A few years ago, a Pixar storyboard artist called Emma Coats wrote 22 rules for storytelling. One of her best rules was: “Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off?”
You’ve got to believe that your story is so interesting that people will love to hear it. If you don’t believe it, no one else is going to.
Make your story human
People relate to people. Not focus-grouped common denominators of cultural diversity, not shallow caricatures created to fit someone’s idea of ‘branded content’ but real people with something genuine to say. So flesh out the characters – people like quirky personal details. They like emotion. They like honesty.
Get the shape right
The author Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he drew the basic shapes of stories as graphs – you can still see it on YouTube. Like all great writers, he knew that every story is underpinned by a strong structure. You’ve got to grab the reader’s attention, keep them on board and give them a satisfying ending.
Edit your story like a weasel feasting
on a chicken bone
Even the best storytellers need a good editor. The author Elmore Leonard famously wrote 10 Rules of Writing – a typically flippant manifesto that contained several pearls of wisdom. Perhaps the most famous was point number 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Great advice.
Know the rules …
There are lots of theories about how stories work. Here’s one by Chris Dee, one of the authors of the Batman stories. “The principles of storytelling do not change. Going home. Coming of age. Sin and redemption. The hero. The journey. The power of love. They are hardwired into us, just like our taste buds process sweet, sour, bitter, and salt.”
Christopher Booker came up with another theory that he turned into a massive doorstopper of a book called The Seven Basic Plots. In it, he argued that there are essentially just seven types of story. Here they are, together with an example of each one:
- Overcoming the Monster – James Bond
- Rags to Riches – Cinderella
- The Quest – Watership Down
- Voyage and Return – Alice in Wonderland
- Comedy – Much Ado About Nothing
- Tragedy – Macbeth
- Rebirth – Sleeping Beauty
This is helpful to know because people understand how these plots work – you can use the conventions of storytelling to your advantage.
… then challenge them
Then again, every good story needs someone who has the courage to stand up and say: “Hang on a minute this is boring, why don’t we just blow up the fairy castle.” Sometimes rules are there to be broken.
Another author, Stephen King, once wrote: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” And chance can play a valuable part. Put your story in places where accidents can happen.
Authenticity is your friend
Social media is placing more pressure on brands to be genuine in everything they say. There was a campaign for a whisky brand last year that was all about the authentic traditions of the whisky – the locally sourced water and barley, the history of the building, the old equipment and methods etc. But instead of using one of its own workers for the shoot, the whisky brand used a male model. The authenticity was lost.
By contrast, being really confident about the authenticity of your story can be massively attractive. The chances are you may well have seen the Dove Real Beauty Sketches video, which gained more than 114 million views within just a month of its launch last year. It was a brilliant example of clever and authentic storytelling. And like anything really clever, it quickly spawned a rather good parody.
And finally, don’t forget that you are a born storyteller too. It’s hard-wired into your emotional brain. As the academic Richard Kearney wrote: “There will always be someone there to say, ‘tell me a story’, and someone there to respond. Were this not so, we would no longer be fully human.”
This story is taken from the first issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.
Fraser Allen launched his first magazine when he was aged 14. Called The Alternative Voice, it was a crass combination of schoolboy humour and naïve politics. It did, however, make a small profit, something he has endeavoured to do since, making a career out of writing and storytelling. As well being Publisher of Poppy and the award-winning booze magazine Hot Rum Cow, Fraser is CEO of publishing agency White Light Media.