What are the components to great storytelling?

May 7, 2018


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.



What is an insight?

February 7, 2017

This post was first published on Hill + Knowlton Strategies. More on that change in my life later!


What is an insight?

They are the things upon which multimillion (billion?) dollar decisions are made.

That entrepeneurs bet their careers and family’s lives on.

That companies are founded on.

That political leaders stake their reputations and campaign on.

But what, really is an insight? For me, the best way to define an insight is to paraphrase entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame, and say that every insight is a secret. And as with all secrets, the less people who know about it, the more powerful it is.

This especially hits home for all strategists. How long do we toil through data, through focus groups, through online behavior and through popular culture to find those secrets? How overjoyed or relieved do we feel when we find one – and how much do we subsequently protect it, polish it and decide how best to use it.

But not all secrets are the same. As we talked about this within H+K, we identified five core types of secrets or insights that we use to solve our client’s business problems.

Those we discover on our own: this is the classic secret where one person’s brilliance, persistence and intuition leads to a completely new discovery. Thiel calls this the Pythagorean secret and eventually they cease becoming secrets and start becoming convention.

Those that are commonly held but that we chose to use in unusual ways: this is the act of taking an insight from one industry or category and applying it to another. Insights gleaned from years of pitching media relations stories can be used to reshape a brand strategy. Insights into the purchase journey of buying a car can be applied to that of buying term life insurance.

Those that only we can see or understand thanks to data and analysis: this is what I would call the “Moneyball” secret. The answer is staring us in the face, if only we can interpret the data properly and get over our own inherent biases to realize that On Base Percentage (Hits + Walks) is more valuable than slugging percentage (which measures power).

Those that allow us to reframe a problem or belief. Our WPP colleague Rory Sutherland brilliantly reframes the spending of six billion pounds to shave 40 minutes off the Eurostar journey by simply making the journey infinitely more pleasurable – through the use of models and vintage wines.

Those that we can combine to make more powerful. Like the five mechanical lions coming together to form Voltron: Legendary Defender (my son’s current favourite show), the act of combining many small and powerful secrets together makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and allows us to solve bigger problems for our clients.

The definition of insight is something we can, and have, debated for days. However, the inarguable truth is: if you want to forge truly meaningful connections with consumers or stakeholders, your communication needs to be rooted in an insight into their lives, their needs and their behaviours…and your business’ role therein.

The Importance of Beliefs, Vision and Strategy

July 23, 2012

Maarten Albarda, vp of global consumer connections at Anheuser-Busch InBev gave a fantastic interview where he clearly and succinctly outlined what digital and social does for the business, how it approaches consumer engagement and finally, the measurement conundrum. The highlights are worth sharing here:

Core beliefs:

One of our fundamental beliefs is that the consumer is the boss. Consumer centricity is at the base of all we do.

A compelling vision:

Fans First is our mantra. Our vision in digital is to create the most celebrated, shared and talked-about beer brands in the world, and with a fan base of over 30 million across all our brands, we are well on our way. Our priorities are, however, not so much focused on the absolute number of fans but on growing in a relevant way with people who are truly interested and engaged

Succinct strategy:

Our strategy is called “Fans First,” and as a result, we have connected with over 30 million fans worldwide through a variety of digital platforms like Facebook, YouTube, RenRen and VKontakte.

On measurement

We measure ROI against a variety of key performance indicators, and we are now in a situation where we understand the relative dollar contribution of each touch point and can determine which mix of connections will yield the best result.

One of our roles as agencies to become trusted advisors to our clients and ensure that every organisation can verbalise these essential beliefs and directions.

Disclosure – Budweiser is a DDB and Tribal DDB client.

The hallmarks of bad strategy

June 28, 2011

Strategy can, and does, mean vastly different things to vastly different people. A good strategy is absolutely priceless which is why there is such a demand for excellent strategic planners in the advertising world. The flip side is that bad strategies, along with being ten a penny, can really kill your business, brand or campaign.

Which is why I really like this list, from McKinsey’s Strategic Thinking team, on what makes for bad strategy:

Failure to face the problem – to solve a problem, you must really hone in on and accept as an issue, the root issue you’re facing.

Mistaking goals for strategy – goals are great, but understanding exactly what is needed to acheive those goals is just as important. “Winning” is not a strategy. I liked this quote:

A leader may justly ask for “one last push,” but the leader’s job is more than that. The job of the leader—the strategist—is also to create the conditions that will make the push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.

Bad strategic objectives – either in the form of a (“long term”) laundry list or a “blue sky” restatement of the desired outcome.

Fluff – restating the obvious and often with buzzwords in a superfluous and unnecessary wordy, perhaps even pontificating style. Just like this bullet.

So what is “good strategy”, and how do we get there?

According to McKinsey:

Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

There are some core components of a strategic plan, according to McKinsey, but do not mistake this list for the “fill in the blanks” templated approach which, along with the “inability to focus”, is one of the reasons for bad strategy in the first place:

  • A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.
  • A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
  • Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy. I imply from this that measurements of success are vital in all strong strategies

Pretty simple stuff. But as Seth says, simple is scary.

The perils of bad strategy – McKinsey Quarterly – Strategy – Strategic Thinking.

The role of the agency in social media strategy development

September 30, 2010

I happened upon a great series of blog posts, via Steve Farnsworth, which focused on the role of the agency in the client’s social media strategy.

My favourite links are below but I also wanted to share my thoughts.

The four things I believe an agency can offer its clients, and that we try to offer our clients when it comes to this stuff are expertise, resources, impartiality and partnership. What do those things mean? I’m glad you asked.


This is a fast moving, fast evolving space and even my team and I find it hard to keep up with the changes and we live and breathe this stuff everyday. No matter how much you want to, unless your (rare and highly sought after) role within the organisation is solely focused on social media, it is very hard to show true expertise in social media. Within the agency construct, we are encouraged to develop skills and keep developing them as a competitive advantage. To paraphrase Arsene Wenger, “everyone wants to have the prettiest wife” and the same is true of clients and their agencies – only prettiness is measured in expertise and creativity. The agency model is built on building expertise and then selling it to clients.


The agency sells expertise but we also sell time. Social media is a time consuming activity and, even if your role does focus on social media, if you are just one or two people within a large organization, chances are that your time is a sought after commodity internally. Who can spend the 2-3 weeks you need to develop a full blown strategy? This is coupled with the fact that clients will always be able to get approval for budget items for strategically important tasks – but will find it very tough to get approval on additional hires. Again, the agency can help here by offering time with an expert resource – or resources.


A social media strategy can not be written and developed in isolation from the rest of the organization. The medium simply touches too much of an organization from sales to marketing and communications, to customer service through to human resources for us to ignore stakeholders. In fact, we must embrace them – finding out the needs of their business unit and any problems they need for us to solve within or through the social media space. This means a deep stakeholder discovery process and I’ve found both at High Road Communications and now at Tribal DDB that these interviews are best conducted by an impartial third party – an agency. We can speak to stakeholders without some of the baggage that comes with speaking to a colleague, get people to open up and uncover real insights. When it comes to working on the strategy itself, these insights are invaluable but so is the detachment from the organization. However, detachment can only take you so far…


Which is why this has to be a partnership. We must work in concert with the client to develop the strategy, to have it approved to the highest levels and then for it to be operationalised. This process must be a true and trusting partnership for it to succeed. But even partnership isn’t enough – as I said, social media touches many disciplines and we need to have all the players involved. My old boss David Jones recommends setting up an agency council dedicated to working with the client team tasked with social media to steer social media strategy, share best practices and ensure activation is successful. This means having the brand agency, the creative agency, the media agency, the online agency, the event/activation agency, the PR agency and, dare I say it, the social media agency meet regularly under a circle of trust where no one is scared they may have to give up budget or stature.

So that’s it. That’s the role, as I see it,  of “the agency” in a client’s social media strategy development. To provide expertise, resources and impartiality under a multi-disciplinary partnership model. If that can be achieved, great thinking will be done to enable great work.

The Links

Steve Farnsworth – What Role Should A Communications Agency Play In A Client’s Social Media?

Paul Roberts – What Role Should A Communications Agency Play in a Client’s Social Media Program

Lou Hoffman – What Role Should A Communications Agency Play In A Client’s Social Media Effort?: 4 Perspectives On 4 Communication Issues

Todd Defren – Role Playing in Social Media Marketing

Hans De Groot – What Role Should A Communications Agency Play In A Client’s Social Media?

Dan Holden – The Agency’s Role in a Client’s Social Media Strategy


Clearly agencies have a role to play throughout the marketing process – whether they (we) can add value to a particular client remains to be seen.

Unlocking Your Inner Insight

September 7, 2010

The act of planning and strategy development requires equal portions of time, dedication and insight. In my mind, it is vital to separate the planning discipline from the account discipline in order to effectively develop these insights and be removed from the business side of things.

So, with that in mind, how can you put yourself in the best frame of mind to generate those insights? PSFK has the answer, with more detail in the link below.

  • Quiet
  • Inward-Looking
  • Slightly Happy
  • Don’t Try So Hard

So…the most insightful planners are shy, introspective slackers who are content with their lot in life? Does that sound right to you?

via How To Facilitate Insights – PSFK.

Testing Your Decision Making

May 27, 2010

Everyday we’re asked to make decisions based on incomplete information in a compressed timeline. Your instinct and decision making has to be rock solid all the time. How do you know whether you can trust your decision making can be trusted? Take these four tests:

The familiarity test: Have we frequently experienced identical or similar situations?

The feedback test: Did we get reliable feedback in past situations?

The measured-emotions test: Are the emotions we have experienced in similar or related situations measured?

The independence test: Are we likely to be influenced by any inappropriate personal interests or attachments?

If you’re falling down on any of these, its time to reconsider your ability to make decisions and the process you go through.

via How to test your decision-making instincts – McKinsey Quarterly – Strategy – Strategic Thinking. (Subscription may be required)

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