July 23, 2014 • Adam Nemmett
“Storytelling” is trendy, but it’s hardly a fad. Stories are one of the most ancient and timeless forms of communication in human history. Recently, I’ve heard all manner of marketing initiative lumped in with that sexy term, and I’m not sure it always makes sense. Is a television commercial always “a story”? What about blog comments or tweets? A marketing director at a major UK candy manufacturer recently claimed that “even our pack designs now tell a story.” Is every brand communication now “storytelling,” or are we simply trying to avoid using words like marketing, packaging or (gasp) advertising?
I don’t mean to imply that it’s impossible to create a compelling tale with a single sentence or well-structured image. But it’s time we got more serious about the word “storytelling”—what it is and what it isn’t. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be planting a series of stakes in the ground. Without further ado, here’s the first of our 7 Tips for Audience Engagement:
A timeline is not inherently a story. Nor is a slogan, a tweet or candy-bar wrapper (well, there are exceptions to every rule). A story is not flat. It must have an arc, some ups and downs, twists and turns. It must promise us something and then deliver, in a surprising yet inevitable way.
Stories can take many shapes, but most have a beginning, middle and end. Aristotle was one of the first to call this out, and many other smart folks like Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler have developed this idea into what we now shorthand “the hero’s journey.” We’ll talk more about this in the coming weeks. But the word “end” implies finality, so let’s try: setup, tension, and resolution.
In our setup, we need a protagonist—a person, a group or an organization—with a unique personality or set of values. Let’s call this character. Our protagonist must want something—their goal or endgame. Let’s call that mission.
The essence of storytelling is the tension of character and mission set loose in an unpredictable world. The audience needs to watch this mission—and the obstacles impeding its realization—play out in some sequence. Our character may remain steadfast in the face of adversity or may evolve over time. But the audience must care about whether or not our hero achieves their goal. As storytellers, our job is to create and complete this satisfying arc—the oversimplified shape of a story—and allow the character and mission to resolve, like the final chord in a refrain we can’t wait to hear again.
For a company, an anniversary year is a common resolution moment—a great excuse for an organization to drive toward business and communication goals. The key is collaborating with organizational leaders to help understand and define what this resolution might look like, and then work backward. We then craft a narrative that draws on relevant pieces of distant and recent history, allowing the organizational story’s resolution to feel both surprising yet inevitable.
We invite you to see where this journey goes and how it resolves. Follow along and feel free to send us your exceptions to the rule. Until then, here’s where we’re headed:
Designer: Maya Eilam, www.mayaeilam.com
Sources: A Man Without a Country and Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut