How do you tell a memorable story?
There’s a simple formula you can use for great business storytelling.
And that’s what this Chapter is all about.
1. How do you tell a good story?
In a Smith College experiment from 1944, 34 people were shown a film.
In it, two triangles and a circle were moving across the screen.
When asked what the film was about, 33 people came up with narratives. The triangles were generally seen as fighting men. The circle was a woman trying to escape.
Only one study participant said it was about geometric shapes moving across a field.
Not so much. As humans, we see narratives in everything.
And neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found through his research that story narratives can change behavior by changing brain chemistry.
In a study he conducted, people were shown a short film.
If the film had a narrative, people’s brains produced cortisol (stress/focus) and oxytocin (empathy). Those that produced more of these chemicals were more likely to donate money to charities.
If the story they were shown didn’t have a story pattern, people didn’t care.
All compelling stories follow this same pattern that can change people’s behavior.
Doesn’t matter if we talk about The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, a Taylor Swift song or even the 2007 iPhone launch or a persuasive ad…
They all use the same formula.
And that’s what we’ll look at next.
2. All the best stories use this persuasive story pattern
Narratives are inherently more engrossing than basic facts. They have a beginning, a middle, and end. If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. When you hear people tell a good story, you hang on every word. You want to find out whether they missed the plane or what they did with a house full of screaming nine year olds. You started down a path and you want to know how it ends. Until it does, they’ve captured your attention. – Jonah Berger, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” (2013)
You know how people say “sex sells” or “puppies and babies grab people’s attention”?
Not true. Or, not as well as a persuasive story pattern.
Take this study by Johns Hopkins University that explored why some Super Bowl ads are more engaging than others.
The study found that Super Bowl ads that use a certain narrative perform the best. And that’s irrespective of content (yes, including cute babies or animals or sex).
The researchers guessed that a commercial about a dog befriending a horse (“Puppy Love”) would be the highest rated commercial during that year’s Super Bowl because of its strong story pattern… And it was.
How can you use this in your business?
Let’s take it from the start:
At its core, a story is a sequence of events.
It involves causation and effect and it unfolds through time.
It begins, something happens, it ends.
That’s how Aristotle defined a narrative in “Poetics”. And Freytag’s pyramid illustrates this structure:
Another way to use this story pattern is this story spine Pixar uses to tell its stories:
“Once upon a time… Every day… Until one day… Because of that… Because of that… Because of that… Until finally… And ever since that day…”
Think of any Pixar movie (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story…). They all use this pattern. And if you think about it, so do a lot of other successful stories.
That includes powerful business stories.
Sales pages, ad scripts, presentations… Great business storytelling goes hand in hand with the right narrative.
Just look at these brand storytelling examples:
Budweiser did it in their Super Bowl ad “Puppy Love”.
Steve Jobs did it in his 2007 iPhone launch.
Apple did it in its “1984” Super Bowl ad.
And if you start paying attention to business stories around you, you’ll notice it gets incorporated in the stuff that grabs your attention.
So in YOUR copy, remember:
Website copy, email copy, ad copy… Use it to capture your audience from the get-go.
Now you know how to use a structure to build your story.
But we need to dive deeper. Enter:
The Hero’s Journey.
3. What’s the hero’s journey and how do you use it in your business?
What’s the Hero’s Journey?
It’s a structure that’s used in all mythologies and epic stories involving a hero.
So stories about Buddha, Jesus, and Harry Potter are built with this same structure.
The Hero’s Journey is always about a hero who sets out on a quest. The story has some key events:
- Call to adventure: Something nudges our Hero to undertake a journey.
- Departure: Our Hero accepts the challenge.
- Crisis: Our Hero is faced with an unfathomable challenge.
- Treasure/return: Our Hero claims victory, the circle closes and the Hero returns to his or her ordinary world. Everything is back to normal, but our Hero has grown or changed in some way.
So how do we translate this to your business?
Who’s the hero?
The hero is obviously the protagonist of a story.
But in your business, that hero isn’t you or your business…
It’s your customer.
This is an idea I learned from StoryBrand.
And it’s powerful. If you position your customer as the hero, you instantly make it clear to yourself and to your customer how your business fits into his/her life.
Whenever you tell a story, even if it’s about something you experienced, think of the audience as the hero. It’ll slingshot your story right into their minds.
Who’s the guide?
Every hero needs a guide, someone who supports their journey and steers them in the right direction.
Think about it:
Harry Potter – Albus Dumbledore
Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings – Gandalf the Grey
Simba in The Lion King – Rafiki
And so on.
If your customer is the hero in your business story, then you’re the guide:
“The customer is the hero of our brand’s story, not us.
When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as their guide, we will be recognized as a sought-after character to help them along their journey.
In other words, your audience is Luke Skywalker. You get to be Yoda.” – Donald Miller, StoryBrand
What’s the challenge or struggle?
Your hero faces a challenge:
An antagonist or a force that gets in the way of his or her quest.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo needed to destroy the ring of rings to destroy Sauron and save Middle Earth.
In Harry Potter, Harry needs to defeat Voldemort to prevent evil from taking over the world.
In The Lion King, Simba needs to save his savannah from Scar.
In your business, your hero (your customer) faces a struggle. You help them solve it with your business.
We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. – Dr. Paul Zak (here)
Who’s the hero here? What’s the struggle? How does Spotify help its customers?
(Hint: Even if it says “Music for everyone”, they do have a target customer. It might be that they have several of them – after all, both I and my middle-aged dad use this service. But still.)
4. What separates stories you remember forever from the rest?
So now you have a structure and your customer’s journey.
But what transforms a “good enough” story into a memorable masterpiece? Here’s what you need to know:
#1: Keep it focused
[Storytelling] is knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal […]. – Andrew Stanton (Wall-E and Toy Story)
Want your story to be crystal clear to your audience?
As the storyteller, you need to ask yourself:
“Who is my audience? What is the message I want to share with them?”
And then build your story around that message.
You see, if you have too many things going on, you distract your audience’s attention from your message.
Which means that your story won’t get shared or remembered.
So keep it focused and remove anything that distracts from your story’s one main goal.
Here’s the front page of the SEO blog Backlinko.
Notice how everything reinforces the message (= SEO tips)?
#2: Evoke curiosity
Here’s the deal:
All good stories start with something enticing. A question, a promise, and an information gap.
You see, humans are born problem solvers.
According to the information gap theory of curiosity, our brains NEED to find the answer when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know.
Give people 2+2. But don’t give them 4.
Make them work to solve the riddle both in the short and long term and they’ll stick around.
Start with a question that evokes curiosity. Let’s say you sell healthy snacks. In your copy, you could say:
“Last year, our customers reported that their consumption of unhealthy snacks declined by 68%. This made them lose an average of 11 pounds and their energy levels soared. How did they do it?”
And how do you keep them glued to your story and come back for more?
Your stories need to help people see something they haven’t seen before. They need to point a light onto a spot that was previously opaque.
Let’s say you want to make the case for the company promoting you. Everyone makes the same case, “Please promote me. Please pay me more money. I’m ready for a new challenge.”
That’s not only a boring story because it’s so common, it’s also not compelling.
When a story reveals something that no one knew, it’s more interesting. More compelling. – Chris Lema
Chris Lema is a public speaker, daily blogger, a WordPress & WooCommerce evangelist and the VP of Products at Liquid Web.
#3: Use what you know
Want your story to be and feel authentic?
Then, use what you know. Use your own experiences, your own emotions in your story. For example, use an “epiphany” you had that made you learn something new.
This can be directly translated into a business story.
Too many businesses are “me too” businesses that copy and paste what other businesses have done.
But what if you used your own insights?
Only you have a certain perspective and specific insights.
No one can copy you and that immediately sets you apart from your competition.
I found this article on Medium the other day:
See how it’s all about the writer’s own insights and experiences?
Use the tools you have right now to create your story. THAT’s authenticity.
My argument is that storytelling in business is less Steven Spielberg and more iPhone home movie. Successful business storytelling removes the “Epic” associations, boiling the activity down to its purest form:
The conveying the events or ideas through words and images with the goal of educating, entertaining and/or inspiring an audience. – Ryan Hanley
Using what you know makes it engaging…
But it also ensures you use stories ethically.
Establishing a culture of honest storytelling is not only a moral imperative for companies and workers, it is better business in a long-term, bottom-line sense. No matter the genre or format, the ancient prime directive of storytelling is simple: tell the truth. This applies even to the fantasy worlds of fiction. “Fiction,” as Albert Camus put it, “is the lie through which we tell the truth.” The world’s greatest storytellers don’t eschew falsehood and inauthenticity because they are morally superior to the rest of us (anyone who’s read around in their biographies knows this is not the case). They do so in recognition that truth-telling is better business for them as well. – Jonathan Gottschall
Jonathan Gottschall is a Distinguished Fellow at Washington & Jefferson College and author of several books, including The Storytelling Animal.
- All memorable stories use the same story pattern: Your story begins, something happens, it ends.
- In your business, The Hero’s Journey is your customer’s journey. You’re the guide. Figure out what their challenge is and use that in your copy.
- Great business storytelling is clear, it evokes curiosity and it’s based on personal and authentic experiences.
Moving on: In Chapter 3, you’ll learn how to create a message that sticks in your customers’ minds.