What are the most important ingredients to a story? How do you keep your audiences spellbound from the start to the end?
Sharing her experience as a New York based professional storyteller (how cool is that) with The Moth, Tricia shared that stories are more than just anecdotes.
While stories and anecdotes have narrative structures, most stories have the following elements:
- Characters whom the audience can relate to
- A Plot which has a clear beginning, middle and end
- A Setting which provides the context for the audience or reader
- Conflict/s between the characters, which usually results in a climax in the action
- Resolution of the conflict, in a way that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying
Beyond these five basic elements, however, the best stories are built on three key principles:
- A Universal Theme which underpins all the elements of the story
- A Narrative Act that demonstrates some form of transformation to the characters in the story
- Explain the Stakes in the Story, ie what stood to be gained (or lost) if you undertake the journey
By using these principles, you can sharpen your content marketing efforts and achieve better outcomes when you craft your brand and customer stories.
Let’s look at these principles in detail, and see how we can apply them to our brand storytelling efforts.
#1: Use a Theme that Resonates
What do you think about when you consider a story’s theme?
For some, it could be the proverbial moral of the story, ie the lesson that you hope to communicate in the narrative. For others, it could be the “Why” of a story, ie the motivation behind the story that is being told.
According to Tricia, a theme is what the story is all about, while the plot dictates what happens in a story:
- Theme: What the story is all about
- Plot: What happens in a story
As you go about brainstorming over your brand story’s theme, it may be useful to ask yourself the following questions:
- What stories can your customer identify readily with?
- What are the deeper underlying issues influencing your customer’s actions and behaviours?
- What negative and positive emotions would they experience?
- How do you address these issues in your story?
The best stories tend to have just two or three main themes. Once you’ve identified what your core theme is, you should try to eliminate all other sub-themes that may distract your audiences.
Here are some examples of themes in popular culture:
- Star Wars: Redemption, Good vs Evil, Triumph of Underdogs
- Harry Potter: Coming of Age, Friendship, Family
- Hunger Games: Survival, Against the Odds
- Donald Trump: Patriotism, Us vs Them, Nostalgia
#2: Show Transformation with a Narrative Arc
According to Tricia, a real story needs to demonstrate transformation — especially in your main protagonist (the hero of your story.)
To do so, you need to introduce what is called a narrative arc in your story. This can be understood by the following steps:
- Describe your protagonist at the start of the story
- Narrate the events happening to him or her
- Describe how your protagonist has transformed at the end
The key ingredient in any story, transformation is the process of change which your audience can imagine in themselves after reading, viewing or listening to your story. Your goal is to help them to transform for the better after they use your products or services.
Here are some questions which you can ask yourself while crafting the story:
- What does your customer have before they’ve engaged with your brand, and after they’ve done so?
- How would your customer feel — before and after they’ve consumed your brand?
- Who is your customer before and after they’ve done business with you?
- What else has changed after your customer has engaged with you? This can be in their environment, social circles, financial status, health, or other areas of life.
Once again, there are several good examples of transformation in popular stories:
- Star Wars: Luke Skywalker transforms from desert farm boy to Jedi Master
- Harry Potter: Harry Potter transforms from gawky tween to hero of the magical world
- Hunger Games: Katniss Everdeen transforms from fearful teen to leader of the rebellion
- Donald Trump: Donald Trump transforms from successful businessman to the leader of the free world
#3: Highlight the Stakes
Last, but certainly not least, it is important to let your audience know what is at stake in your story.
This can be defined as the rewards that can be enjoyed at the end of the journey should the right actions be taken.
“Something must be won or lost,” Tricia says. “Little wins and losses along the way are what keep people interested along the way.”
In considering the stakes in a story, you need to factor in the following:
- What will your audience gain if they engage with your brand?
- What will be their loss if they choose not to do so?
- What will their desired end state be like? Paint this as vividly as possible, demonstrating all the benefits that they can enjoy.
- How will the sensation of success feel like? On the flip side, how will failure feel like?
Like the earlier point on transformation, you need to consider not just the tangible benefits but the intangible outcomes that may result from the change. This can be crafted in the story, and include possible gains (or losses) in money, time, health, relationships, status, career prospects, and other areas.
If we go back to our four storytelling examples, you can see that the stakes for each saga are clearly communicated:
- Star Wars: The freedom and autonomy of the different civilisations in the galaxy.
- Harry Potter: The independence of both wizards and muggles (ordinary humans) from the evil rule of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters.
- Hunger Games: The survival and long-term happiness of the oppressed citizens in the different districts.
- Donald Trump: The economic prosperity and livelihoods of the average American, and freedom to practice what he or she believes in.
As a practitioner of brand storytelling, I love how these 3 simple principles help to crystallize the pillars of good stories. These evergreen principles are useful for content marketers to consider when crafting our brand and customer stories. They also help to anchor our story plots on a firm bedrock, and eliminates unnecessary flab and fluff in our narrative.
What are your thoughts on the three principles above? How can you apply them to your own brand storytelling efforts?