What Marketers Can Learn About Storytelling From the Movie Industry

Using the power of the individual

Joshua VanDeBrake
Oct 7 · 4 min read
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Photo adapted from Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Hollywood has developed a technique for effectively telling stories that hold our attention. The way movies suck you in isn’t a fluke or an accident — they’re engineered that way.

And more importantly, this technique can be transferred to marketing and make your message more engaging and powerful.

That’s what we’ll be covering today.

How Big Issues Get Ignored

We’ve seen examples of large groups of people getting up in arms about small, singular incidents like the Domino Sparrow. But when those same people are told about the unfathomable atrocities happening to millions of people in other countries around the world, they are able to simply go on as if millions of lives aren’t being threatened, taken, and destroyed. Why is that?

The answer, according to Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon is that:

These mass tragedies “fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. [The numbers] fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.”

In other words, large numbers overwhelm people. When faced with these numbers — even in obscene injustices — we have a hard time converting that into emotion. Subconsciously, we think: it’s too big of a problem — I can’t make a difference.

Let’s put this into perspective, not of a current issue but one from the past. 407,300 American soldiers, and between 21 and 25 million soldiers worldwide, died in military conflicts during World War 2. That’s not including the many more millions of civilians who lost their lives either in combat or due to war-related disease and famine. Historians conclude that 70–85 million people worldwide lost their lives as a result of World War 2.

What does emotion does that information spark for you?

For most people, there’s a bit of momentary sadness for those lost lives. For many, maybe a sense of patriotism and gratitude. But for those who personally lost a loved one in the war, the memories and possibilities of what could have been come to mind, and with them, a much deeper emotion emerges because that person was invested in an individual.

And that’s the key we can learn from the movie industry:

By telling the stories of individual people, we are able to tap into the power of empathy and cause an emotional response — a connection.

Saving Private Ryan

The 1998 film Saving Private Ryan begins at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. On the scene are an elderly man and his family. He approaches a tombstone and, with an abrupt start, falls to his knees in tears.

The movie transitions to the year 1944, and goes on to recount the events of World War 2, showing a group of soldiers who receive orders to save the last remaining son of the Ryan family — 3 of the 4 had already died in the war effort and the last one was fighting on the frontlines. A man named Captain Miller, along with a group of several other highly-trained soldiers, make up the task force that’s been ordered to find the only remaining Ryan and bring him home. The movie continues, following their journey to extract Private James Francis Ryan.

Many twists, turns, and battles later, they find his unit defending an important bridge against German forces. But even after receiving the news of his brothers’ deaths, he is unwilling to leave his post. So the members of the task force agree to join Ryan in defending the bridge against the Germans.

At the end of the battle for the bridge, the Americans emerge victorious but not without heavy losses. Several members of the task force have been killed in the conflict, including Captain Miller, the man who the story had been following since the beginning.

As the final scene transitions to the present day, it becomes apparent that the elderly man from the beginning is, in fact, Private James Francis Ryan, now kneeling over the tombstone of Captain Miller — the man to whom he owes his life.

After release, the movie went on to win countless awards. It was a storytelling masterpiece, brimming with emotion. The creators of that film succeeded in connecting with the audience to tell the story of Captain Miller, through the lens of his last mission: to save Private Ryan.

Instead of focusing on the many atrocities and lost lives of World War 2, the movie instead focuses on telling the story of a few individuals. And that is why it’s so powerful.

How Can We Apply This to Marketing?

By taking the movie industry’s principle of telling stories from a micro perspective rather than explaining from the macro, we can supercharge the emotional impact and engagement of our own stories. It’s that simple.

Case studies, customer stories, content marketing. All incredible resources — but even more powerful when told from an individual’s perspective.

As the transformational, 15-year CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, once said: “People still love a good story, and I don’t think that will change.”

Remember, large numbers overwhelm but individual stories engage.

By taking large concepts and telling them from a closer, individual perspective, we can transform our own causes and campaigns into engaging stories that spark emotion and connection with our audiences.

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Thanks to Niklas Göke

Joshua VanDeBrake

Written by

Passionate about Marketing, Startups, & VC. Full-Stack Marketer. Ambivert. Millennial.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +731K people. Follow to join our community.

Joshua VanDeBrake

Written by

Passionate about Marketing, Startups, & VC. Full-Stack Marketer. Ambivert. Millennial.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +731K people. Follow to join our community.

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