October 5, 2018
We use storytelling to process information and communicate with one another. We talk about news stories and we structure our conversations as stories (“you’ll never guess what Dave got caught doing in the bushes…”). The science behind storytelling is rock solid: we find stories compelling, and they can provoke powerful behavioural responses (if you want the science, click here).
Now those two points – that stories provoke powerful reactions, and that we tend to think in stories – imply something very important: if you’re not consciously writing your own story, others will make one up. You’ll always have a story associated with your brand, and that story matters. How much control over it do you want to have? The answer is a lot.
But that brings up a new question: how do you tell a good story?
To understand stories, we can go back more than 2,000 years to legendary philosopher Aristotle (this article was nearly titled: “marketers hate him because of this one simple trick! – that “trick” was storytelling).
Despite not having his own TedX talk, Aristotle was a genius. And human nature hasn’t changed since his time. What follows is a cherry-picked collection of ideas from his Poetics (summarised and paraphrased):
A story has structure: beginning, middle, and end. Modern storytellers often call this the ‘three act structure’. These pieces have to be connected logically through the law of cause and effect. The king doesn’t just die, he is killed by his vicious brother, who has always wanted his pet poodle. (End act 1).
Details aren’t just connected logically – they’re also connected narratively. That means everything that is mentioned in the story has to be included for a reason. You only mention poodle-wanting if that’s important to understand other things in the story.
All stories are driven by conflict, struggle and strife.
Assuming he would inherit his brother’s poodle on his death, the killer discovers that it has been left to the stable boy instead – the only other person that the king trusted to care for it as lovingly as he. Now there’s conflict. How does he get that damned poodle!? Perhaps a chase ensues. (This is act 2).
End it well. Aristotle thought the ending was the most important part of a story, and should resolve the conflict: that doesn’t just mean dissipate the conflict, but conclusively finish the story. One side wins and all is right (or wrong) with the world. Why would the king leave his poodle to the stable boy? Perhaps he was the king’s illegitimate son, and the rightful heir to the throne all along. With his triumph and coronation, order is restored! Unless the stable boy turns out to be a monster and kills the poodle. In which case this story was probably a cautionary tale about the dangers of autocracies. Either way, conflict resolved. (End act 3).
Stories aren’t rocket science. They’re narrative structures that can reorganise and drive the information, values, themes, and messages, that you want to get across to your audience. You can’t avoid stories, and you can’t opt out of them. You can only choose whether or not you’re the storyteller. Getting it right can have massive pay-offs.
To help close the gap between theory and practice, let’s take a look at Apple’s Think Different campaign that re-defined them in the 90s.
You want to change the world, but you’re frustrated by the challenges of the modern age: a lack of creativity and widespread conformity. That’s your first act and your tension – how could anyone overcome such an obstacle!
Apple values people like you – because (remember Aristotle’s logic of causality?) people like you change the world (Einstein, Gandhi, etc.) – evoking the conflict these figures faced helps to deepen the sense of struggle. That’s your second act.
Because Apple values people who think differently, it stands with them. Together, we can change the world. That’s your third act, and your strong ending.
Notice there is not a single detail in that narrative that doesn’t contribute to it. No description of how much better Apple’s products and services are than the competition, no biography of Steve Jobs – not even the suggestion that you might want to consider buying a computer. There is a place for those things, but Jobs knew it wasn’t the brand story.
So, there you have it. One final piece of advice: it’s a little harder than it looks. Lots of practise and a critical eye will help you get the best results.
By: Ben Inder