As humans, two things tend to stick in our minds really well: A good story, and a catchy song.
Jingles, though famous as some may be, are pretty limited vessels for conveying a marketing message. So, we marketers have learned to wrap our messages up in stories.
Here are 25 tips and examples that will make you a better storyteller and get your message to stick.
Why we tell stories
Stories connect us with the rest of the world. They are part of our brains’ hardwiring. Jason Thilbeault at [RE]Think sums up the power of storytelling as well as anyone:
[Stories] provide us a mechanism to create connection and, ultimately, shape our own identities. … Everything we do in life, every bit of news, every bit of memory and photograph, is a story that we shape to our own needs (either to support who we are, through both negative and positive connotation, or what we want to do). It goes back to that connection. Whether we watch or act, our brains actively work to create a connection between what’s happening in the story and our own identities.
Make your customer the hero
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Campbell argues that many if not most heroic tales, regardless of culture or point in history, follow a basic structure that he refers to as the “monomyth.”
If a listener or reader is hardwired to identify himself/herself in the story you tell, then tell the story of a hero, and make sure that hero is someone with whom your customer can identify.
This, by the way, is the key to fantasy fiction. No one is going to buy into the whole Gollum thing or the Eye of Sauron if they don’t first see part of themselves in Frodo.
Your hero is on a quest
And just like Frodo, your customer is on a quest. Your customer might not have a world to save, but he does have a Venti-sized caramel macchiato stain on the passenger seat of his brand-new car. And given how much money he just handed over to the dealer, and the vacation he had to postpone just to afford this car, and WHY DOES THIS KEEP GETTING STICKIER WHEN I SCRUB IT?! … well, the world can wait.
Something is blocking your hero’s quest
There is a gap or an obstacle or a nemesis standing between your customer and whatever it is he or she wants. Not only that, but as your hero is human, he or she is fraught with self-doubt and maybe a little apathy. Take inventory of all these impediments because, one by one, your hero is going to have to defeat them.
Your customer’s antagonist is your antagonist
As Copyblogger’s Brandon Yanofsky notes about the above point, “Tap into and talk about a common ‘enemy’ to bond with your customers, and their loyalty to you will grow very strong, very fast.”
Stories need a moral
Here is the real artistry. Remember, you aren’t telling your customers a story just for the fun of it. You have a real marketing message to share. The resolution of the story and the thing that your hero learns, i.e. the moral, is a direct reflection of you and your business.
If you are telling a tortoise-and-hare story (moral: “slow and steady wins the race”), then don’t try to sell your customer nitrous oxide canisters for their Subarus.
We as humans swarm to frightening things. Look no further than the premieres of Jaws or The Blair Witch Project for evidence.
What is interesting about fear is that it compels people to take action. This will propel your narrative, and more importantly it will prompt customers to take whatever actions you’ve specified to overcome that fear.
For more on behavior and motivation, see this post on ConversionXL.com.
As with the cat, our curiosity just might be the end of us all. Don’t believe me? Then why do you keep clicking on those “You won’t believe what happens next!” Upworthy posts in your News Feed?
(Here is why.)
Suspense takes intrigue a step further: Rather than simply being curious, you as a writer hint at something possibly dreadful that feels the reader with anxiety. Suspense helps ensure your customer will stick with the story you are trying to tell.
Add these 20 phrases that indicate suspense to your toolbox, courtesy of HarrisonAmy.com.
Scandal is what makes celebrity gossip magazines so popular and what keeps paparazzi in business. It’s annoying, but we’re drawn to it anyway.
The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, understands this intuitively:
Just be careful messing around with scandal as a narrative device. It can fall into self-satire very quickly:
In Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige (and in the film of the same name), there is a Victorian Era Chinese magician whose big magic trick was to produce a fish bowl, full of water and with a goldfish, seemingly from nowhere. This trick ultimately helps illustrate what the story’s main characters, two rival magicians, understand about the true nature of magic.
This, however, is not the Victorian Era, and your customers will be immediately skeptical of any indications of magic. You can use this skepticism to your benefit. Just look at the “Dermatologists Hate Her!” ad above. Scandal drives the headline, sure, but the real intrigue comes from this hint of transformation that must surely rely on magic.
Also unlike Victorian Era magicians, you have one further obligation to your customer if you tease them with magic…
Reveal the magic trick
You have to show your customer how your supposed magic works. In the same ad above, the intrigued prospective customer expects to find, once he or she clicks through, what exactly makes a 51-year-old woman look 25.
Don’t worry. You won’t get booted from The Alliance of Magicians for revealing how your magic works. Demonstrating how your product or service works is an important step in dealing with customers’ objections.
[SPOILER ALERT] As for the Chinese magician in The Prestige, he never actually materialized a fish bowl. Instead, he carried it between his legs whenever he was in public and affected a limp to disguise what he was doing. This begs the questions of which is more impressive, the notion of creating something out of thin air or the magician’s own commitment to selling the illusion.
These next two devices are anchors within the oral storytelling traditions and thus are among the very oldest narrative devices.
Before writing, oral storytellers relied on repetition to be mental mile markers within a story. Repeating a phrase allowed the storytellers themselves to actually remember the story.
A couple of famous examples are Poe’s “The Raven” (“quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!’”) and anytime someone tells a joke that involves three people walking into a bar (“So the second guy walks into the bar…”).
Repetition, as anyone who has visited an airport in the last 13 years knows (“Today’s threat level is … orange”), can really pound an idea into the listener’s head and make it stick.
Bluntly repeating a word or a phrase these days is not as effective because we are all fatigued with sloganeering. This device now requires a great deal more subtlety.
As English creative agency Sixth Story points out, Facebook does a good job of repeating its genesis story over and over: “Founder Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook from his dorm room and so, really, we here at Facebook are just normal Internet users, too.” It makes the whole thing sound grassroots-y, and not like a network whose membership rivals the population of India.
Kevin Stroud in his “History of English Podcast” series does a great job of explaining how rhyming allowed storytelling in Old English to flourish, at a time when most speakers of the language could neither read nor write. Back then, travelling minstrels (and later troubadours) would tell stories in verse form with built in rhyming structures so they could actually remember the words.
Dirty limericks, of all things, illustrate the mnemonic power of rhyme beautifully. Just fill in the next line: “There once was a man from Nantucket…”
Don’t go overboard with repetition and rhyme. These were crucial for oral storytellers but wear out quickly in writing.
Cliffhangers are such powerful devices that we are happy to overlook the fact that something momentous always seems to happen at the 59th minute of every hour in Jack Bauer’s life. Cliffhangers invite intrigue, participation and engagement with whatever story you are telling.
Sound crazy? It’s not: Cliffhangers can be as obvious as “Tune in next week!” or as innocuous as the first four words of this paragraph (h/t Copyblogger). The goal is to simply keep people reading. Cliffhangers keep Netflix users glued to their screens during a binge, and they keep Dan Brown’s pockets full.
This is another device you don’t want to abuse, particularly when you are setting up your audience for a pay off. If you string your audience along only to tell them “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” they will lose faith in you quickly.
Casting Yourself in the Story
The mentor / sage / guru / wise man on the mountaintop
If you want to craft a heroic tale in which your customer is the hero, your business should probably be the mentor character, or at least that character should reflect the values of your company.
Basically, you get to play Gandalf.
PlayStation introduces such a character in its “Greatness Awaits” trailer:
In Campbell’s monomyth, this is the first step, the call to adventure. PlayStation, presumably, will be there by your side as you take on the remaining 16 steps.
Tell a personal story
Another option that works very well is to personalize your brand by telling the story of, for example, the company’s founder or leader.
Apple’s Steve Jobs is clearly the gold standard. In that story, he himself is cast as the hero, overcoming obstacles and even getting fired by his company before reclaiming the throne, infusing the company with his powerful vision and ultimately surpassing his rivals.
Commenter Kare Anderson at Social Media Explorer makes an important point: “The maker of the story must yield ownership as it spreads.” Jobs had to hand over his role as hero and visionary to Apple’s raving fans, who saw parts of themselves in Jobs’ own genius.
Ultimately, the customer must still end up a hero.
Tone and Style
“Yes, you’re crafting ‘stories,’” marketing veteran Susan Gunelius writes in Forbes, “but they need to be rooted in the reality of your brand, products, and industry. In other words, even brand stories must adhere to the three primary steps of brand-building: consistency, persistence, and restraint. If your brand stories are inconsistent, they’ll confuse consumers who will turn away from the brand in search of another that meets their expectations for it in every interaction.”
Professor Stephen T. Asma writes in Aeon Magazine that while cognitive intelligence is thousands of years old, emotional intelligence in animals dates back a couple of million years. The primal core of our brains responds to emotion, not logic — Seth Godin calls this the Lizard Brain.
Triggering an emotional response can attach a new level of importance to all the thoughts and ideas associated with it. A good movie tells a good story, but a great movie gives you chills.
Learn from Great Examples
We can finally put all of these storytelling tips together and see how they work together to convey powerful marketing messages. Here are six examples of effective storytelling in marketing and advertising.
Catalog copy for this J. Peterman jacket (source)
Google Nexus 7 commercial
Acumen CEO Jacqueline Novogratz’s blue sweater story
Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial for Mac
(directed by Ridley Scott, by the way)
Canadian Paralympic Committee commercial
Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” 2013 Super Bowl spot