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Five Tips for Storytelling in Marketing

By May 15, 2012Article

Find me someone who doesn’t like a good story. Stories are the essence of effective marketing, which is why studying the art and science of storytelling goes a long way for anyone with an influence agenda. (Find me someone without one!)

Stories are encoded with a rhythm that is both soul satisfying and familiar. They perpetuate cultures and traditions. They’re reminiscent of childhood. They scratch a primal itch.

Stories are memorable. Our brains deflect fragmented bits of information, but absorb information that’s organized in logical and discernable patterns that point to a broader meaning.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the very best storytellers. He can draw us into a story about topics as mundane as ketchup (literally; see New Yorker article, “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Sept. 6, 2004) by using anecdotes in combination with artful rhetoric, which he pays out progressively over a narrative arc that builds suspense and involvement in the resolution of a plot. There’s little doubt that he has a special gift, but the essence of what he does isn’t all that unique.

Storytelling is an art, but it’s also a science. It’s art that makes stories exceptional, but there’s a science behind storytelling that should be applied to any idea you’re trying to convey.

Stories result in subconscious engagement

Social scientist Robert Cialdini describes a phenomenon called “click-whirr,” which is the automatic reaction of the human brain to stimulation based on so-called “fixed-action patterns.” Our brains recognize the pattern (“click”) and reflexively engage in the experience (“whirr”).

Stories create this sort of subconscious engagement. When we recognize the pattern, our brains click and we whirr through the telling of the narrative. We’re hooked, almost physiologically.

German playwright Gustav Freytag described storyline structure that follows five acts:

  1. The exposition, which sets the context
  2. Rising action, which sets up the conflict
  3. Climax, which is the heightened state of involvement with the conflict
  4. Falling action, which sets up the resolution
  5. Dénouement, which is the resolution and, frequently, the lesson from the journey.

Blueprint for storytelling

This is the blueprint for virtually every story you’ve heard.

It’s the formula for Hollywood blockbusters, supermarket potboilers, the canons of great literature, non-fiction feature writing and, in my opinion, the very best marketing.

Let’s apply it to your marketing challenge:

  1. You serve a market that has a need
  2. Which is currently unmet by incumbent solutions
  3. Which creates all sorts of problems for your target customer
  4. Thankfully, your solution is available to uniquely address this need
  5. Which means that all sorts of good things accrue for your target customer.

The end.

Of course, this isn’t particularly interesting in and of itself. The basic structure of the story is necessary, but not sufficient to the goal of creating emotional involvement. Art fills the gap.

If science is structural, art is sensorial. It’s the rhythm of language through the arrangement and choreography of words. It’s the use of imagery through scene setting and character development. It’s the use of analogies and metaphors to make abstract ideas fit into preexisting mental models.

The goal is to establish an emotional connection with your audience that creates curiosity and then commitment to the full course of your narrative. While some of this is subject to innate talent and aptitude, I believe everyone can become more artful and effective in how they communicate.

Five storytelling tips

1. Develop an eye for journalistic observation

I learned to see detail and relationships in an undergraduate photography class. While I never became a particularly good photographer, the process of capturing images forced me to open my eyes.

Building great stories requires the power of observation — not just superficial observation, but engaged, committed, mindful observation. It may sound like new-age hokum, but the ability to effectively observe is a discipline that can be learned and, as a storyteller, it is the most powerful tool at your disposal.

2. Study the great storytellers

Read fiction and non-fiction; watch drama and documentaries. Malcolm Gladwell, Ira Glass, Andrew Stanton, EB White, Steve Jobs — all great storytellers. Find the storytellers who speak to you and figure out what makes them tick. Read their backstories, learn their process and borrow what you can from their methods. The patterns are well established. You just need to decode them and make them your own.

3. Look outside of your domain

If you sell software, study consumer goods. Or go further afield and study science, history, art — anything that is outside of your domain. If you’re in business, favor literature over business books.

Get out of your comfort zone. Explore new areas.

While true creativity is the rarified gift of an exclusive, elusive few, the rest of us can get away with the next best thing: Applying known ideas to a new context. Look outside of your domain and you’ll find ideas and insights that make your story more unique, memorable and extraordinary.

4. Let your freak flag fly

There’s significant research to suggest that our creativity diminishes over time as our thinking becomes filtered by societal norms. We become risk averse and boring. While kindergartners may be wholly unfiltered in their creative thinking, adults are typically much more reigned in.

That’s why, as a storyteller, it’s important to relax your conventional and conformist tendencies. Let your freak flag fly! Take some risk and trust your first idea. Show your passion, conviction and authenticity. Have fun and don’t overthink it.

5. Think like a serial writer

You don’t have to look any further than the young adult (YA) segment in the publishing industry to understand the power of the serial. Once you’ve nailed the art and science of your particular story, consider rolling it out sequentially over a period of time. This allows you to draw your audience into a long-running narrative, developing richer, more involved engagement over time.

Practicing the art and science of storytelling can help make ideas rise above the noise, which is particularly important during a time of competing messages, fragmented media and fractured attention spans.

But, as importantly, stories are the lifeblood of new social marketing models. They give your audiences a reason to care as you fight for sustained engagement across web, mobile and social channels.

That’s why, to be an effective marketer today, you must master the art and science of storytelling. The good news is that the masters are among us. Their lessons are all fair game.

Jake Sorofman is founding partner of Marketlever, a boutique content and engagement marketing consultancy. Jake is a career CMO and software executive who has worked with early-stage and growth-stage companies. Contact him at or on Twitter @jakesorofman.

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