Story is the closest thing we have to a universal human language. Regardless of region or dialect, everyone on Earth can relate to and gain information from a narrative. Think about it. In response to “How was your day?” no one verbalizes bullet-points. And if the person is interested in continuing the conversation, they also don’t relay a play-by-play of each 15-minute segment of their day. It may go a little something like “You won’t believe what happened on my commute …” and a story begins.
Why do we do that? Because story invests your audience in what you’re talking about. Storytelling makes marketing better. After our recent fall Firestarter event “Storytelling in 150 Characters: The Anatomy of a Social Ad,” I wanted to explore this topic more because it’s not about the length of the story. It’s about the information you relay and how you connect with your audience. Knowing story can boost sales and improve trust and attention with your reader means all marketers should focus on storytelling first.
That’s right, there’s science behind this recommendation. Hearing a story releases oxytocin in your brain that studies show can hold a person’s attention and builds trust between them and the storyteller. Plus, marketing results demonstrate storytelling increases sales—from 5 to 64 percent in different case studies.
Let’s begin by taking a look at terrible storytelling in a car commercial.
Your ad’s story shouldn’t confuse people
A good story, especially in a short ad format, provides a character you can relate to or a goal you can aspire to, and it presents that narrative quickly and effectively. This Buick commercial has bugged me for months! Who am I supposed to relate to? The man lying to his wife, and making his dog complicit in his lie? The oblivious wife who is tricked by a cartoon-style prank?
Mostly, I relate to the dog, who’s as trapped in this terrible story as I am. If the goal here is to appeal to people who love driving so much they’ll lie to their loved ones and not actually walk their dog, mission accomplished. This ad lacks self-awareness about its narrative and falls flat as a result.
A good ad should be a journey
In comparison to the Buick ad, this commercial tells a story well. It begins with intrigue: Why are they climbing these stairs? What are the calendar days leading to? It gives us relatable, likable characters to follow. And it ends with answers to the questions introduced at the beginning by showing characters achieving a goal.
While I’m not the target audience for this health and wellness ad geared toward retirees, I’m human and I can appreciate that this ad’s story is about planning, hard work, and how that leads to achieving a goal. It’s an effective journey communicated in 30 seconds. That’s good marketing.
How to craft a story for marketing
In marketing, rarely is there an opportunity for lengthy storytelling. Whether the content you’re creating is short like a social ad or long like a whitepaper, you’re not going to have loads of time to explore narrative. You have information to relay, data to communicate. So keep it simple. Simple stories can be very effective.
A Pixar storytelling trick
Begin by borrowing this narrative format tool from Pixar as you craft your narrative.
“Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally, ___.”
Let’s quickly apply that tip to the Humana ad.
“Once upon a time, there was [A RETIRED COUPLE.] Every day, [THEY LIVED A NORMAL LIFE WITHOUT MUCH PHYSICAL ACTIVITY.] One day [THEY BOUGHT UPPER BLEACHER TICKETS TO A BASEBALL GAME.] Because of that, [THEY WALKED UP THEIR STAIRS REGULARLY FOR EXERCISE.] Because of that, [THEY GOT INTO BETTER SHAPE.] Until finally, [THEY WERE ABLE TO WALK UP THE STADIUM STAIRS TO THEIR SEATS AT THE BASEBALL GAME.]”
StoryBrand tips to hone your copy for an audience
Once you have your narrative, this list from StoryBrand will help you put your story through a crucible to determine if it will be meaningful to your audience.
To keep your audience engaged, they must understand:
- Who the hero is.
- What the hero wants.
- Who the hero has to defeat to get what they want.
- What tragic thing will happen if they don’t win.
- What great thing will happen if they do win.
If your job is to create an asset for a current or prospective customer and that asset confuses any of these points, it may be missing something. (Note: Your “hero” should be a character your ideal audience can relate to or see in themselves.)
Effective storytelling will make the answers to these question clear in a way an audience will barely realize is working. HubSpot’s Hero’s Journey is another helpful resource when it comes to dramatic format in marketing narratives.
David Mamet’s blunt, but effective, storytelling advice
You can also proof your ad narratives with this list of questions from award-winning writer, director, and playwright David Mamet from his letter to the writer’s room of “The Unit”:
“So: We, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.
- Who wants what?
- What happens if her [sic] don’t get it?
- Why now?
The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.”
The term drama here, in regard to marketing, is interchangeable with the idea of whether a narrative is compelling or not. “Drama” is essential to pushing a sense of urgency and capturing an audience’s attention with storytelling, much like it is in film. Drama means conflict. If you can position a character your audience relates to with a problem that your product or service can help them overcome, you’ll be able to set up a dramatic and compelling narrative in a single line of copy or a piece of long-form content.
“If you’re bored with something you’re creating,
chances are it will bore the audience too.”
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(Note: This applies to visual storytelling as well. Keep all these tips in mind as you create video and static imagery, because storytelling is essential there, as well.)
As Mamet also says, “If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.” Translated: If you’re bored with something you’re creating, chances are it will bore the audience too.
An inbound mentality informs great marketing storytelling
To that end, always remember that good inbound marketing foresees the questions your audience may be asking. This foresight, when applied correctly, will inform your narratives. If the audience sees their own issues tackled in an ad, that’s the ultimate inbound effort bringing visitors to your site.
Let’s synthesize these ideas into a single list of recommended questions you should ask to proof your marketing for effective storytelling:
- Who is the target audience?
- Do the marketing copy and proposed story speak to them?
- Are you talking about your company or your solution more than the audience? (You shouldn’t be.)
- Is the story you’re telling relatable to your audience? (It needs to be.)
- Does the copy set up the potential for drama by establishing a pain point or problem?
- Does that dramatic narrative close with the character finding a resolution via your product?
Internalize these questions, apply them regularly, and in no time you’ll be breaking the story of your marketing before you even sit down to punch those keys.
Take the next step on your storytelling journey with more copywriting and content marketing insights on the Bonfire blog. And sign up for our newsletter below to get tactics and strategies delivered right to your inbox.