Storytelling in Marketing

As much as sci-fi movies want us to believe data-rich holographic interfaces are how we’ll manage all our information in the future, that’s not the trajectory we’ve been following.

To persuade someone, motivate a group, or inform a society we have always used narrative. Tribal myths, heroic legends, the humble parable: stories have always set guide rails for collective thought.

I always thought stories were toys, playful but useless. When it comes to the important business of communicating serious information we must write properly, whatever that means. But refining and sanitizing information down to sterile binary bits renders the knowledge meaningless. In the same way that we’re racing to fortify our cornflakes with the iron and calcium we stripped from the kernel, human stories are the whole grains from which our wisdom comes.

It’s as if we are not biological machines with ethernet ports plugged into the back of our heads for the most direct, up-to-date understanding of the world. But rather the keyhole of our minds is shaped like a human and the closer information resembles the rich, lived subjective experience of a person the better it fits through our mind’s eye and unlocks the meaning for which it was intended.

Why are stories so compelling?

I found 105 articles I don’t remember writing.

Facts and opinions about growing small businesses.

The writing was entirely forgettable because I’m running a business now and suffering from all of the stuff I talked about.  

Will Storr taught me that memory has three peculiarities that help explain why so much of my writing feels like I’m shouting in the wind

First, memory is episodic.

We remember life in little episodes. Think back, you were by the beach, in that lovely blue house with the coarse purple quilt.

Search engines are semantic. Blue, purple, quilt…. aah, yes, that house by the beach. That’s just not how our brains work.

Second, our memories are emotional.

Sometimes we don’t remember what happened we just remember how it felt. Emotions, and the memory around them, stain deeper than raw facts.

Finally, memory is autobiographical.

Events don’t just occur in the world. They happen to people. We remember life from our point of view.

Being at the epicenter of how we see the world means our brains find it easier to relate to information when it happens to an emotional being.

The character can be us or another, real or fictional, it makes very little difference.

We are compelled by emotionally charged episodes that center around a person.

When details fit these grooves in our mind they slice through our brain’s defenses as a warm knife moves through butter.

When they don’t things are easier to forget and ignore.

If you want to be heard, speak in story.

In business, you are never the hero

If I asked you to tell me a story. What would you say?

Where would you begin?

The chances are you wouldn’t start with an event out in the world. You’d begin with a person. It’s a boy who discovers he’s a wizard. It’s a young woman who takes her sister’s place in a faraway, dystopian death contest.

For our people-obsessed brains, all the exciting action in a story or the external twists and turns and intrigue come from the people. None of it works without a compelling character to draw you into the story’s world.

Whether you’re trying to resonate with new customers, motivate those around you, or inspire your team, the best way to create a message is to build your story around a set of compelling characters.

There are three essential characters that form a story: the hero, the shadow, and the guide.

The hero is the central figure in your narrative. Think of Luke Skywalker, a young man who finds a mysterious message and decides to fight an evil empire. The hero’s job is to drive the story through some form of transformation.

In order to grow the hero must overcome an adversary, a force that gets in the way of the hero fulfilling their quest. The shadow can be an enemy or a rival, but it can also be more subtle, like the hero grappling with loneliness and doubt.

The shadow usually arrives at the beginning of the story, and its job is to force the hero to ask the dramatic question, “who am I and who am I going to be?”.

All the excitement and tension in a story are based on how the hero answers this central question.

But heroes seldom go at it alone.

Along the way, they find help. A wise Jedi who teaches you about the force and prepares you for the journey ahead. This character is your guide.

A guide is somebody or something whose purpose in the story is to give the hero the skills, the knowledge, and equipment they need to conquer their shadow and become heroic.

In business, the key to effective storytelling is for you, the speaker, to assume the role of the guide and for your audience to assume the role of the hero.

You’re Obi-Wan, they’re Luke.

So in business storytelling, you’ve got to remember that you are never telling your story. The hero of your tale is always the customers. Or the employees you want to inspire. Or the investor looking for their next opportunity.

Your business exists to help people make some kind of change and your role as a storyteller is always to position yourself as the guide. You’re not the hero, you are the force that helps the hero succeed in their quest.

Storytelling is one of civilization’s oldest arts, and now you’re officially part of the tradition.

Battling the forces of nature

It starts with a door opening.

Then you just see a man’s feet trudging through the snow on a horrible dark night.

He turns over the ignition and the car’s headlamp seems to appear in the darkness. We watch the car make its way down the road.

It’s the only car on this awful kind of deep snow-covered road.

And then a voiceover says, “Have you ever wondered how the snowplow driver gets to the snowplow? This one drives a Volkswagen.”

And then we watch the driver get into the snowplow.

In this 1964 Volkswagen commercial, the driver of the car is the hero. He’s the one battling against all the elements to get to the snowplow to clear the roads to make life possible for the people in his community.

The shadow of course is the blizzard. It could also be the driver not wanting to get out of bed and battle the forces of nature.

And the guide is the car that enables the hero to be heroic.

When telling stories as a business, you are never the hero, you are the guide that enables the hero and helps them answer the story’s dramatic question, “Who am I? Who am I going to be?”.

I’m going to be a man who gets out of bed and gets in his car and battles the forces of nature to make life better for everybody around me.

How to tell a half-decent story

A story starts when a hero finds themself in a broken world.

All the tension in a narrative is down to how they handle their problem. Their struggle can be internal, or in the physical world, but often plays out in both.

A story is resolved when the hero fixed the problem, emerging transformed from the experience.

All stories are stories of transformation.

We like to make sense of things. The world is often a chaotic and confusing place. This simple three-act structure is the simplest way to restore a sense of order in our world.

Businesses can piggyback on people’s bias for stories by using this simple three-act structure in their communication.

Here’s how to tell a compelling story as a business in 5 steps:

  1. Your story must have a clear guiding idea – If you’re telling your company story then you have to be clear about what your company helps people do. If you’re just telling an anecdote to make a point the guiding idea behind your story must be crisp. All marketing communications have a moral or key insight they communicate. You need to be clear about what you are trying to communicate. We’re dealing with short-form storytelling here so your story can only be about one thing.
  2. Assemble your cast – Once you know what your story is about you must create the characters. There are three essential characters in a story: the hero, the shadow, and the guide. The hero is the central figure in your narrative. The hero’s job is to drive the story through some form of transformation. In order to grow the hero must overcome an adversary, a force that gets in the way of the hero fulfilling their quest. A guide is somebody or something that helps the hero conquer their shadow and become heroic. Your customer is the hero, your business is the guide, and the shadow is whatever problem your business helps them solve.
  3. Start with act three – Begin with the end in mind. What will the world look like when everything is fixed and ordered and perfect? Define what your hero cares about and describe the version of success that resonates with them and the groups they belong to.
  4. Then go back to act one – Now that you have a perfect world, what is the exact opposite? this is where your story starts.
  5. And now for act two – Now all that’s left to do is explain how your business helps your hero fix their broken world.

Easier said than done.

All of this came from Will Storr’s excellent 2-week storytelling course. Everything I know pretty much comes from that one course at the moment. It’s all still new to me.

The example he used for this done well is CrowdStrike’s cyber security story. It’s interesting to see how they’ve followed the three-act structure so meticulously.

The different kinds of storytelling marketing you can do

The question I’m currently struggling with is how do I apply all of this storytelling marketing stuff to my business.

The most common advice seems to be to build a narrative around your brand. This is what CrowdStrike did in the example above.

Telling a brand’s story

The key to telling a compelling stories from a business perspective is to understand that you are never the hero.

Your customer is always the hero of your story. Your role is merely to help the hero become heroic. Placing yourself at the center of your own business story is the easiest and most fundamental thing to mess up when you start telling stories as a business.

I learned this on Will Storr’s 2-week storytelling sprint. He did such a fantastic job of explaining how to put a brand story together

Park Howell’s book on Brand Bewitchery also dives into the mechanics of repurposing the hero’s journey for your brand communication.

My only problem is that building a brand story as practice for developing storytelling chops is that it’s a one-off exercise. Once done, it’s done. You can tweak it every few months, but it’s not something you do every day.

I want to tell stories every day.

I need a format short enough that I can produce a story 30 times a month. I need practice. I need to put more stories out there. I will learn more from telling 30 stories a month than I will from reading a book and telling one story a week.

At this initial stage, when I’m crap at every aspect of the craft, volume is vital. Once I’m fluent with the basics, then I can pay attention to quality.

So what would scales for a storyteller look like?

Given that you can never be the hero of your stories, the first thing I thought of was testimonials. Not just reviews, but actual stories of how the business has transformed people’s lives. All stories are stories of transformation. So what could be better than the stories of real customers’ journeys?

Telling your customer’s stories

I started planning it out and realized that my customer’s tales of transformation were more like the end game than scales.

Stories of transformation take time and change happens slowly. I want to work towards telling these stories but I can’t rely on them for practice because I’d be lucky to get 2-3 good transformation stories a month.

Telling customer stories is the right direction, but the format is too slow for practice. This is closer to the thing I am practicing for. By the time I have customer stories to tell, I want to be able to tell them well.

Stealing stories instead

For the last month or so I’ve been writing on a platform called Nicheless. It’s beautiful. You can write about anything you want. There is zero expectation to stick to a theme.

I used it as a conceptual clipboard. Whenever I found a good anecdote in a book or podcast, I’d transcribe it into Nicheless for future reference.

Here are some of my favorites:

The best thing about Nicheless is that there is a 300-word limit. So I couldn’t just transcribe the anecdotes directly. I had to cut bits out, move things around, and sometimes paraphrase stuff.

This was a fun exercise.

The problem was I wasn’t practicing much other than curation.

Tracing people’s stories is a great way to break down and understand other writers’ structure and phrasing. But I also needed to apply these lessons and I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.

Making stories up

Maybe the solution was to just make stories up.

In 2009, two journalists, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, bought 200 objects from eBay. We’re talking about cheap trinkets. The average price for each was no more than a few dollars.

Then they called 200 authors and asked them to write a story about one of the objects.

They returned to eBay to sell the objects with their stories in the descriptions.

One of the objects was this beautiful horse’s head. Bought for 99¢ and sold with a story for $62.95.

They managed to sell all 200 objects for $7964.

This wasn’t a hoax. No one was being tricked. The stories were clearly labeled as invented on the listings. You can check out the objects and their stories on the significant objects website.

Perhaps the lesson here was to just make stories up about my business. This would be a fun myth-making exercise.

In essence, isn’t this was advertisements are? Take this 1964 Volkswagen commercial. Isn’t this just an opportunity for Volkswagen to tell a little make-believe story about their cars?

But I don’t want to trivialize the business. I’m not saying that all made-up stories and advertisements trivialize businesses. I’m just saying that I want to develop skills that help transform mundane communication for all kinds of businesses. Important ones too, like projects that focus on human rights or climate change, or animal cruelty.

If the only tool in my toolkit is to fabricate stories then I feel like it would limit the kinds of businesses I can help. Rather than making things up, I want to learn how to make the truth, and the real, interesting.

A teaspoon of story

Maybe I’m overthinking this.

I’m definitely overthinking this.

What if learning to tell better stories isn’t about producing stories as much it’s about sprinkling anecdotes and visual stories into non-narrative communication (as I did with the Significant Objects project in the previous section).

If this is true then practice just means collecting stories for later use. The skill here is understanding which stories fit where.

So…more DJ, less musician.

Transforming things into stories

But I don’t want to be a DJ.

The skill I want to hone is the ability to take important but dry and sterile information and use narrative to bring it to life and help other people feel its importance.

I tried to do this with two articles about weight lifting and fat loss. I changed them from instructional information into a narrative about the person who went on a journey of transformation.

The lazy guide to losing weight and getting stronger.

I find it easier to turn instructional information into a narrative with personal stories:

The problem here is that I am placing myself at the center of these stories. As I’m also doing with this blog post I am writing. This is the cardinal sin of business storytelling.

To push myself, I tried telling a human story where I am not the hero. The best I could do was this episode of when I helped someone deal with their chronic back pain

But stories like this take time to cultivate. Brand loyalty is a slow process. These are the customer stories of transformation that I’m working towards.

So what stories can my business tell today?

Brand Storytelling as advertising campaigns

Another way to look at this is to think of brand storytelling at the level of an entire project or marketing campaign.

A great project that comes to mind here is Eva.Stories, a multi-million dollar budget visual depiction of the Instagram profile of a 13-year-old girl who chronicled the 1944 German invasion of Hungary – complete with hashtags, the latest internet lingo, and emojis of rainbows and strawberries.

The project broke 1 million followers in 24 hours.

Here’s a link more on Eva.Stories if you’re interested.

Campaigns could also be smaller, at the level of a single ad, like Accenture’s Nothing gets past Ebun tweet or the TV placement as in the 1964 Volkswagen commercial.

But these are not stories.

This is about applying the principles of storytelling to copywriting and advertising.

The problem with this direction is that practice here would mean creating better advertisements, not crafting better stories. The incentives are all messed up. Performance advertising and masterful storytelling are two separate things, and while there may be overlap, they have very different trajectories.

I want to practice the craft of producing discrete stories as compelling content for my business.

But maybe the stories my business needs are not the ones I tell. Maybe the most effective stories are the ones that emerge from the work a marketing team does.

Getting other people to tell your brand story

KFC franchisee Sam Edelman set out to earn a Michelin star.

Sam’s KFC in Australia met all the criteria. He believed he deserved a star. And he was serious. So much so that he traveled to Paris to plead his case.

The absurdity of it all was brilliant.

Sadly, Sam’s KFC was not awarded a Michelin Star.

But KFC reached 850 million people with the campaign. And 724 individual articles covered the story as it unfolded over three weeks.

If you’re interested, you can watch a video recap of the whole thing on Ogilvy’s Australian website

Perhaps the real art of storytelling in marketing is to stoke the stories that emerge from the things you do and the campaign you work on.

Alas, now we’re just talking about PR.

I don’t want to learn how to run a PR and marketing agency.

I give up.

Storytelling marketing examples

I didn’t have a neat ending for you when I drafted this post yesterday.

There was no resolution. Only confusion. No transformation had been made. I’m still in the thick of this so there’s no moral to share yet.

But then Jay Acunzo sent out an issue of his newsletter yesterday evening. It was titled the 6 types of stories for your bag.

Earlier that day, I had a hastily typed-out exchange with Jay on Twitter around the question of a short-form story format that I could use to practice storytelling for business.

His newsletter later that evening fit the pieces together by explaining that in business we need 6 types of stories:

  1. Brand Storytelling – I was on the money with this one. A story about the change your company helps people make. This covers your company’s values and your brand personality. The quintessential example here is CrowdStrike’s cyber security story.
  2. Your personal Story – I completely missed this one. Jay’s point is that my own story is an important part of the business. It will come up every time I do an interview or appear on a podcast and therefore is an important story to hone.
  3. Personal Anecdotes – These are shorter, personal stories that I can use to reinforce lessons that my personal story perhaps glosses over or isn’t the best fit for. Examples here would be when I helped someone deal with their chronic back pain, or how I am losing my ability to focus, or how removing distractions alone does not work. These stories are only tenuously related to my business’s overall brand stories so I will start to collect anecdotes that are more relevantly linked to my company’s brand story.
  4. Lead stories – These are the customer’s stories of transformation that I was talking about. We have a wall of testimonials at the bottom of our pricing page but I want to go further and have richer stories about the kinds of changes our product has helped change them make.
  5. Supporting Anecdotes – this was the missing piece for me. This is the short form story that I can hone. These are stories around specific ideas or questions to emphasize a key insight or highlight a point of view. These don’t have to be my stories, they don’t even have to be real-life stories, my job is just to collect them, and make them my own in the way that I tell them. The skill is shaping the story, in the way that I retell it, to fit my needs. This is what I’ve been missing all along, the idea that retelling someone else’s story for your own purposes is as much of a skill as crafting a story from scratch. Ogilvy’s KFC story, Eva.Stories, Nothing gets past Ebun, the significant objects story, and the 1964 Volkswagen commercial are all great examples of supporting anecdotes.
  1. Skeptic’s Story – This last type of story wasn’t on my radar at all. Jay’s point here is that you need a specific arsenal for disarming people’s most common objections to your company story I’m not sure this warrants its own category because I feel like there’d be plenty of overlap here with my personal and supporting anecdotes. Still, interesting to consider when a story’s insights delivered straight face pushback.

So I found my answer.

The marketing strategy stories in my business is to develop a portfolio of 5-6 types of stories.

My brand story is really the capstone to this collection. It’s a slow-moving that provides all of the context and meaning around what I am doing and it progresses gradually over.

The action is in my lead stories, a handful of tales of customer transformation, and the impact my business has had on real people’s lives.

Then there is my personal story, which cannot be separated from the business and is an important contribution to humanity propelling the business.

And the day-to-day stories, the faster moving pieces on the board, are my personal and supporting anecdotes. These are where all the practice happens, where the storytelling skills are mastered and mastery is honed.

Marketing leaders are the people who go out and find stories that speak to the transformation their business helps people make, to collect them and learn how to retell them to share valuable insights and guidance with our heroic customers.

Links to useful resources