Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The three ingredients of storytelling

Storytelling’ is currently enjoying industry buzzword status. However, no-one seems to agree on exactly what storytelling is – let alone how to do it well. In this post, we cut through the hype and reveal the three ingredients you need to harness the power of storytelling for your brand.

'There once was a professional services company called PwC...'
Forget what those creative gurus are telling you: brand storytelling is not a hot, new invention. It’s always underpinned great branding. The trouble is, the term ‘storytelling’ has been tossed around so much lately its meaning has become rather diluted and distorted.

‘Storytelling’ is now increasingly used to describe what is essentially just well-structured copywriting: a nice intro, a bit of detail and a satisfying conclusion. It’s become a buzzword – another branding platitude with no real substance.

The recipe for connection
We want to change that. For us, it’s not storytelling unless you make use of the following three ingredients.
1. Character
When it comes to brand storytelling, human emotion is what really makes a tale. People are much more likely to build emotional connections to characters rather than corporations. That’s why successful brand storytelling nearly always has a human face (or at least a meerkat one). So introduce character or, even better, a character, for maximum storytelling results.
                                                                                                              
2. Suspense
This is all about raising questions in the audience or reader’s mind – questions they instinctively want answering. Introducing a challenge is the most effective way of achieving this. It doesn’t have to be negative or perilous either. It could be, ‘Can we do better than last year?’ or, ‘Can our pies be tastier than ever?’ However, the emotional attachment to your brand’s character will diminish if it doesn’t have to overcome something.

3. Empathy
People connect with characters by drawing parallels between the challenge in the story and challenges they’ve fought or are facing in real life. Put simply: storytelling is all about empathy. Alas, the revelation of weakness required to create a really powerful story is a step too far for most brands.

Why do brand stories leave us underwhelmed?
Despite having the ingredients to create powerful stories in their proverbial larders, most brands aren't willing to throw them in the pot.
  • They don't want to show vulnerability or hint at weakness so they don’t have the suspense.
  • They don’t want to put an individual forward so they don’t have the character (and they can therefore forget about empathy).
Diet storytelling
Of course, this reluctance doesn’t stop brands from attempting to tell stories. You’ll still get juice companies spinning a yarn about how their oranges are grown in deepest Latin America using nothing but love and sunlight. However, without character, suspense and empathy, they’re mildly interesting at best.

What they need is a character (Ricco’s family has picked our oranges for two generations and it’s taken him from poverty to owning his own home), a challenge (every year he does battle with mountain flooding) and empathy (he has pride in his work and wants his children to go to university). Now that’s the basis of a powerful brand story.

The End
We don’t quite agree with sweary, Austrian designer, Stefan Sagmiester – but he has a point. Storytelling – proper storytelling as practised by filmmakers and novelists – does offer powerful opportunities for brands. (We once wrote a fable for a bank to explain a principle to their senior management.) However, it is a distinct and fairly complex tool which requires the brand to take some risks.

Next time you see a highfalutin think-piece on storytelling, repeat three words and scroll on by: character… suspense… empathy. Without these, it just ain't a story. 

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