Crash Course in Storytelling

How many awful commercials do you see where a group of ethnically diverse “friends” is standing around a party having some wooden, unbelievable discussion about the benefits of Product X?

You probably can’t remember because a) there are so many of them and b) they’re all so, so forgettable.

It’s a shame, because even if a company doesn’t have the budget of a Google or a Red Bull, that doesn’t excuse them for not trying. A great commercial script is free. 

Story is free.

See, marketing is storytelling at its core. It’s taking a reader or a user or a viewer on a journey—one that identifies a problem in his or her life and offers a helpful solution. Great marketing evokes an emotional response in people and makes them connect with your brand in a profound way. Funneling your traditional ad copy through bargain bin actors isn’t story. It’s not compelling, and it’s not effective.

That said, how many marketers do you think really put in the effort to understand story?

Masters of the craft like the Coen Brothers or Cormac McCarthy have spent decades studying and honing their skills as storytellers. It’s not as easy as it seems; just take a look at all the aspiring novelists and screenwriters out there that can’t quite seem to get it right. Marketers shouldn’t just assume that their natural storytelling skills will be good enough. That’s why we’ve constructed this nifty crash course in story for all of our wonderful readers. 

Let’s gets started. Here are the five most fundamental things you need to know about story:


Structure Matters


Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, whether its broken out into two acts like a sitcom, three acts like a movie, or the middle comes before the beginning or your story begins at the end and works backward. It may sound obvious, but these three structural elements must exist in every story, including television commercials, YouTube ads, and articles. Even the user experience on your website should have a beginning, middle, and end.

Take the Allstate “Mayhem” commercials, for example. They open with the Mayhem character in some kind of odd or cryptic setting. We don’t know where he is or what he’s doing, but then he explains the situation and the inherent danger to us. That’s the beginning. It establishes the world and our expectations. Then, out of nowhere—WHAM! Something happens. He plummets through a garage roof or flies off the top of a car and chaos ensues. That’s the middle. He wraps up by surveying the carnage and suggesting we all get Allstate so that you're covered when bad things happen to us. The end.


Conflict Is King


Every story, at its heart, is about a conflict. Usually that means that someone wants something but can’t get it for some reason. That’s the most basic definition of conflict in story, and you can’t underestimate how critical it is.

Here’s an obvious example: in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo wants to destroy The One Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom but faces opposition from Sauron’s armies and other antagonists along the way. However, conflict isn’t exclusive to Hollywood. You’ll usually see the same concept at work in even the least interesting marketing campaigns: a working mom wants a quick, inexpensive way to feed her kids at night, but all the options are either too unhealthy or take too much time. She’s exasperated!

Imagine a story without conflict: this time, the working mom totally has it all figured out. Her husband stays home with the kids and has a nutritious dinner on the table for the whole family at 6 p.m. sharp. Everyone is happy and well fed. Well, where do you go from there? The working mom doesn’t need your Tyson Any-tizers anymore. She’s just fine, thank you. Hence, no story.


Character Is King, Too


As fun as plot twists, great climaxes, and gripping scenes are, they usually aren’t what stay with you years and years after you see a film or read a novel. It’s the characters that last. I’ll bet more people could describe the mannerisms of Captain Jack Sparrow than could tell you what Pirates of the Caribbean was about, that’s for sure.

Pop quiz: describe the last Frosted Flakes commercial you saw. I’m betting the only thing you remember is that it had Tony the Tiger in it and at some point he said, “They’re grrrrreat!”

That’s the power of a compelling character. People talk about them, imitate them, quote their best lines, and dress up as them for Halloween. The Geico Cavemen even got their own TV show! I mean, come on!

Instead of using a nameless, polo-wearing, Caucasian retiree in your next ad, challenge yourself to come up with something more memorable.


Stakes Should Be Well Done


You have to invest the reader, user, or viewer in the outcome of your story, or else they won’t stick around for it. Part of that is crafting compelling, authentic conflicts; part of that is creating great characters; and part of it is attaching real stakes to the ups and downs of your story.

The stakes in Lord of the Rings are obvious. If Frodo fails, Sauron will destroy Middle Earth and everyone will die. Easy enough. But do stakes matter in marketing stories? Of course!

Check out the Coke Chase Super Bowl Ad from earlier this year. A band of Cowboys, some men from the Badlands, a group of Arabs, and a troupe of Burlesque Dancers are racing through the desert toward a giant bottle of Coke. This story could have reasonably taken place anywhere. It could have been in a mall. It could have been in the rainforest. But it takes place in the desert because if they don’t reach that giant bottle of Coke, the insinuation is that they’ll die of dehydration. High stakes! Thus, you want to find out what happens. High stakes don’t always mean death; they can be anything that brings urgency and excitement to your story. And on that note…


Boring Is Bad (Obviously)


The ONE thing a story can’t be is boring. The point of a story is to capture, entertain, inform, scare, enlighten, or amuse an audience; and you can’t do that if they’re all asleep. Conflict, character, and stakes will help, but the most important thing is to show your audience things they haven’t seen before.

Want a non-television commercial example? Check out the Grey Poupon Facebook page. They’re one of the first brands to actually turn away people who want to be fans of their page (under the exclusive rules of the brand’s Society of Good Taste). That’s unheard of! Time will tell if the campaign is effective, but people are talking about it—both in and out of marketing circles—because nothing like it has really been done in the medium. It’s interesting! It’s not boring! That’s what all marketers should strive for in their stories.


To Be Continued…


So far, we’ve covered structure, conflict, character, stakes, and excitement, but we’ve only just scratched the surface. There are some incredible books out there for further reading, including Story by Robert McKee, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Marketers should learn from great films and best-selling novels, as well as from ambitious ad campaigns that aren’t afraid to aim high. And, most of all, we should approach every aspect of our marketing as if it were a crucial element of a greater, purposeful story.

Written by Evan Porter on April 10, 2013


Add A Comment

Loved your crash corse, just one more thing I personally believe: a good story needs a good story teller, or no matter how good it is, it will die in few seconds.

Great post Evan. Becoming a great storyteller will determine how effective your marketing can be.

Eric Van Fossen says:

Good post. Right on. Here's a adjunct to it expressed by Professor Vonnegut:

This is so very important for connection, and so often overlooked.

Thanks for the excellent simplification of the storytelling concept.

This is so very important for connection, and so often overlooked.

Thanks for the excellent simplification of the storytelling concept.

Written by
Evan Porter