What are the components to great storytelling?


It seems like storytelling is all the rage these days. Marketers, communicators, sales people, journalists, trade pubs. Everyone is a storyteller these days – and everyone is advocating for telling great stories. Just like we all (present company included) advocated for “making great content”.

But its never that simple. What is a great piece of content? What is its role? How does it move people, and how does it move people along the path to purchase?

I spent a few days last month with a client thinking about not just the importance of story telling, but the core components of how to tell a great one. The types and genres of stories we tell have come a long way since Shakespeare. The Bard had a choice of two storylines – between a tragedy (extreme suffering for the main character, like Hamlet) and a comedy (a happy ending, usually marriage as in a Midsummer’s Night Dream)

Nowadays, we have a lot more to chose from and its important to look at the core components of how we can tell a story both personally and from a brand perspective. Here are some the things we came up with:

The audience – the way you tell a story and even what story you want to tell is totally dependent on who you’re telling the story to. I wouldn’t have told a bawdy tale from a university night out to my grandparents, but I would relish telling it to friends from school. If this post-social world has taught us anything, its that businesses need to be focused on their audiences and serving their needs to move the business forward.

The location – just like audience drives the story, so does location. An Irish pub is going to play host to a very different type of story than a boardroom or a living room. For me, this one speaks to channel planning and selection – not all stories belong on all social platforms.

The delivery – everyone has a different story telling style; some are animated and boisterous while others are soft spoken, still as a board and every bit as compelling. Just like the others on this list, the right delivery depends on knowing your audience and what they will respond well to. In the business context, I’d equate this to format planning – do you need a piece of film (long? short? medium?) or an article? A pretty picture with a killer line or a multi-part execution? Static or immersive? The story you tell and the way you deliver it makes a huge difference.

The emotions – I want to do a bit of a deep dive into emotional resonance because it gets misused and is often a crutch for weaker strategic thinking but the emotions you want to evoke are a huge part of finding, constructing and telling a story. Do you want the audience to be awed, do you want them to be energised and motivated or do you want them to be sad? For businesses, we don’t need to guess – Karen Nelson-Field in her book Viral Marketing has done the work for us and the most important thing is that you play on emotional extremes if you want to have impact in your storytelling, if you want your story to travel, so to speak. To whit, focus on any emotion but make sure you can evoke the extreme end – as with most things, you don’t want to be in the middle.

emotional resonance karen nelson field

The story teller – of course, the person telling the story is a key component. What is the point of telling the story in the first place? What are your motivations and what do you hope to accomplish? What do you have authority and legitimacy to tell stories about? Each business is different – some audiences seek out stories from certain businesses while other businesses need to push their stories into the lives of the audience. Which one are you? It makes a big difference.

Structure – as we talked about stories, I was reminded of the way Pixar creates a framework for its own stories. Like most good stories, it is simple, timeless and endlessly malleable.

It looks something like this:

Once upon a time there was a _________

Every day _________

One day ______ (this is called the inciting incident)

Because of that _________

Because of that _________

Until finally _________

pixar storytelling rules

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like a pretty good brief for a long standing narrative that a business can tell about itself, its origins, its motivations, its place in the world and how it wants to make the lives of its users/consumers/audiences better.

So there you have it; the six key components to good story telling:

  • Audience
  • Location
  • Delivery
  • Emotion
  • Storyteller
  • Structure

For more practical advice on telling great stories for your business, get in touch and we’ll see what we can come up with together.


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