Storytelling. It’s one of the most over-hyped words in the marketing and ad industries. Everyone’s a storyteller, right? Well, no. Not really. So we were tempted to throw it into the Rockstar CMO pool. But then we thought, f**k it, we’re not going to shove it off the balcony, because sometimes it’s more rock and roll to not do the expected. And because stories are the only way to make a bored audience care.
Seen this video? This dude seems to have a point, but Robert Rose reckons he's wrong. Here Rose breaks down the anatomy of a good story and why, in the end, storytelling still matters.
We get it. Storytelling. It’s a buzzword, and you’re tired of it in the same way that you’re tired of ‘hustle’, ‘growth hacking’, ‘omni-channel’, and ‘micro-moments’.
But just so we’re clear, ‘rock and roll’ has been reduced to a buzzword for at least three decades, and I don’t hear anybody complaining about that. The amount of synthesised pop music that self-referentially calls itself ‘rock and roll’ (I’m looking at you, Panic! At The Disco) is what we should be up in arms about.
But, yeah. That’s, as they say, a different story.
Critics of the word ‘storytelling’ for marketers will tell you that those that actually tell stories for a living (e.g. novelists, screenwriters, musicians etc.) don’t see themselves as storytellers. Spoiler alert: I live in Hollywood and they do – and are mostly quite obnoxious about it.
'Storyteller' is not a title. It’s not an earned achievement. It’s a job, an activity. It’s an attribute that anyone wears like a coat for some period of time. When I tell my ten-year-old niece a bed time tale, I’m a storyteller, even if I’m an accountant by trade. It’s, you know, kind of like the word ‘president’. But let’s not dwell there.
So yes, we marketers – as some meaningful portion of our ongoing activity – can be (and quite frankly better be) storytellers. Today, creating a great tag line that momentarily grabs a customer’s attention, or crafting that three-, six-, or even 30-second spot with the catchy jingle just isn’t good enough. If you haven't focused at least some part of your company’s effort on being the trusted source of interesting stories, then you aren’t going to last very long.
Now, I can certainly admit it’s gotten a bit of hype around it. Every technology provider, agency and consultant promises to help marketers “tell better stories”. But, what does that even mean?
Does it mean being edgier with our content? Should we differentiate ourselves to an audience numb to everything except the completely outrageous with something totally over the top? Maybe. But that seems like a zero-sum game in the end. And, how on earth are you going to compare to the actual or fake news? Do you think your outrageous content will ever top the story about the guy who sold a million dollars of Chuck E Cheese tokens as bitcoin? Or, can you create a more outrageous headline than the fact that Maroon 5 is in fact the most popular band in the 21st Century? Yup, that last one is true. Look it up.
Now, you really want to write that rock and roll post don’t you?
But it’s not just the facts either
So maybe “telling a better story” in marketing means we marketers just need to make our content detailed, and educational. Maybe we should just bombard the audience with so much factual information that they’ll have to appreciate the sheer amount of accurate data we provide.
Nope. That’s not it.
As so many of my screenwriting mentors drilled into my head, great stories have very little to do with the facts, and everything to do with the truth. As one of my mentors, the great storytelling coach Robert McKee, has written, “what happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.”
And if the last 24 months of the daily news cycle hasn’t illustrated this ‘truth’ in spades, I’m not sure what will.
So, what is a story? Well, put simply: a great story is a well-crafted, entertaining, engaging and (ultimately) convincing argument. At the end of a fulfilling story, if I’m successful as a storyteller, I’ve taken you on a journey and you believe (or are at least open to believing) something different at the end of it. In other words, I’ve not only helped you understand, I’ve made you care.
In marketing, stories will come in many forms. It might be that white paper you’re writing. It might be a series of blog posts your team is working on. It might even be that three-, six- or 30-second advertising spot.
Every great story has four parts
The idea you as a marketer may have for some kind of story may come from any number of places. The lightning of an idea may strike you in the shower, or while you’re walking the dog. Or, you might be inspired by an idea that comes out of your team’s latest brainstorming standup. Or, you may inherit a story because your company just acquired another business that has an existing digital magazine.
In whatever form the idea for a story comes into your possession, know that you can begin to pressure test your idea to see if it’s got the anatomy of a good story you can tell well.
Your story has four distinct parts:
- A Human. Every great story has a human soul at its core; even if that human is a talking Lego character. No one wants to hear the story of industrial manufacturing. They want to hear the story of Jane, the enigmatic heroine that finds herself challenged with leading a new industrial manufacturing company.
- The Goal. A goal is a conscious, or unconscious, desire of the human. The desire to achieve a goal is what propels our human hero through the story journey. When the goal is conscious it is related to the greater ‘truth’ (as below). The superhero team’s goal, for example, is to simply defeat the monster. When the goal is unconscious, it is the events that transpire in the story that ignite the illuminated truth in our human hero. Think of the classic detective story, where our hero feels she’s getting too old, and just wants to solve the last case so she can retire. However, by solving the most difficult case of her career our hero also discovers that it’s actually the work that keeps her young.The best stories have both conscious and unconscious goals.
- The Resistance. Every great story needs a tough obstacle. Occasionally, this comes in the form of a great human villain petting a white cat in a secret lair. Other times the resistance is simply a ‘mountain’ that must be climbed, a giant shark that must be killed, or a buzzword that must be validated. The bigger the resistance, and the more relatable to our hero, the better the story.
- The Truth. The truth is your argument. What do you believe in, and what are you trying to argue? Some might call this the theme of the story – or the message – but at its core the truth is simply the belief we are trying to inspire in the audience with our story.
Now, if you’re a fan of my colleague Joe Pulizzi’s book Content Inc., you can roughly map these four attributes to what Joe calls the anatomy of a Content Mission.
- The Human = The Core Target Audience. In most every case your business and marketing story’s hero will be the audience you are targeting. At a broader storytelling level, your human hero must simply be relatable to your target audience. In every great story, the audience can see themselves in the hero.
- The Goal = What Will Be Delivered. The content must meet the desire of our audience, either consciously or subconsciously. If it is conscious then we are promising exactly what the audience said they desired. If it is subconscious we are either illuminating something that is previously unknown by our audience, or challenging a core belief and working to successfully alter it. Again, the best stories satisfy both conscious and unconscious goals.
- The Resistance = The Outcome For The Audience. As content marketers, we are here to help deliver challenges and adventures for the audience to go through. The bigger the challenges, and the more satisfyingly we pull the audience through them – the more satisfying the story, and the more convincing the argument.
- The Truth = The Content Tilt. Joe calls his “content tilt” the “sweet spot”. This is truly the differentiator – and should be what we believe to be the greater truth that we will illuminate. This is our unique point of view, and ultimately what we want our audience to believe. As Joe points out in his book, entrepreneur Ann Reardon started a blog called How To Cook That. Her Truth, or Content Tilt, is that she believes that “a qualified food scientist and dietician who likes to cook [should teach you to make] ridiculously unhealthy desserts!” I didn’t make that up. It’s the first line of her About Us page
Can’t you see better stories, better posts and overall a differentiated value coming from that framework?
Now, to be clear, it’s not a template. I very much see this as the writer Chrispher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, described Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. He said the Hero’s Journey “is not an invention, but an observation… a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.”
In other words, not every great story will have some earth-shattering, differentiating answer to every one of the four questions above. But the better the answers, the better chance we have something truly worth exploring. So, the framework can be a tool of expedience; getting to a better story more quickly. Or, over a longer time, the framework might help you develop a bigger and better story where none existed.
Overall, the point is you not only CAN be a storyteller, you MUST be a storyteller. I do not accept when someone says, “I’m not talented enough, or not creative enough to be a storyteller.” As I like to say, if you have now – or have ever had – a significant other in your life, you’ve told at least one impactful story that created a fan.
There’s no doubt you can, and should, do it again, again and again.
Now, go out there and tell the proper story of rock and roll would you. Panic! At The Disco just came on again, and I’m tired.