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Storytelling – part art, part science – 100% imagination

Author's avatar By Danyl Bosomworth 01 Nov, 2012
Essential Essential topic

What does it mean for content marketing?

What is it with the idea of storytelling these days, everyone's at it apparently - creatives, PR execs, ad agencies and now digital marketers, it appears. It sounds useful, inspiring even, I used the expression myself last week in a marketing seminar, but as the word came up again in a meeting yesterday I wondered - what does it actually mean for modern marketing? And, do we all think it means the same thing?

"Marketing is storytelling. The story of your product, built into your product. The ad might be part of it, the copy might be part of it, but mostly, your product and your service and your people are all part of the story. Tell it on purpose." ― Seth Godin

Bigger than marketing

First and foremost it's important to say that stories have to reflect the sum total of your business or brand, you can't paint a glossy story for a brand and then the experience of your product and customer service is bad. Well, you can but we know the feedback loop of social media renders this pretty stupid in the long-term. This in short is why we get so annoyed with brands, they tell one story, make a promise, set our expectation - then deliver a very different version. Of course we feel cheated and irritated. Let's assume your story is true consistent with your brand, for the rest of this post. If you know it isn't then craft a different story.

Not so new...

Even from a marketing perspective, I don't think the idea of storytelling itself is so new either, ad agencies have long talked about 'brand narrative' or the 'underlying message' behind an organisation or product. Yet as the effectiveness and popularity of content marketing and the use of digital channels continue to grow, the idea is no longer owned by advertising as the primary channel of communication. The batten is handed over to many more marketers, or story-tellers. I think it's as much about the range of media formats too, they've become more accessible to marketers - it wasn't that long ago, 4 years maybe, that a lack of broadband penetration was limiting the use of streaming videos online, now it's commonplace to mobile devices over 3G. Simply, we now have more tools and channels available for story-telling, meaning more of us are at, or at least could be.

The science of persuasive storytelling

There's a lot of science under-pinning effective storytelling, something I cannot do justice to in a short summary here, plus I'm hardly expert an on it. It is useful context though, and boils down to the 'psychology of persuasion', it's a fascinating space, one where social psychologists such as Robert Cialdini (in the main), the almighty media guru Tony Schwartz and even the communication theories of Harold Adams Innis have all heavily influenced. I'm a huge Seth Godin fan, and in the most part I feel Seth's work in 'All marketers are liars' is based on this background science, especially that of Cialdini.


The core idea behind Cialdini's work is quite simply that humans don't have the time and cognitive capacity to process all of the messages around them. Effective sales and marketing rely on this established worldview - as Seth says here. There's a trigger that causes a 'click' and a subsequent automatic or sub-conscious response, 'whirr'. Cialdini's book (Influence: Science and Practice, 2003) suggests that, in a complex world where people are overloaded with more information than they can deal with, people fall back on a decision-making approach based on generalisations. These generalisations develop because they allow people to usually act in a correct manner with a limited amount of thought and time.

It's going a little off-topic, but he goes on to describe the six categories that are governed by a psychological principle that directs human behaviour, and so gives related tactics their power. These categories include consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. More here if you wanted to take a look.

Use the storytelling recipe of the experts

Before we get onto story-telling in your marketing, let's also recognise that this is structure that's long since baked into plays and movies. It's how we can get so much from a relatively short film (back to "click-whirr"). We know George Lucas used Carl Jung's theory of archetypes to design his hero's journey of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, just as playwright Gustav Freytag describes a storyline pyramid of '5 acts' for a successful story:

  1. Exposition: set the context for the journey
  2. Complications: define the conflict or challenge of the journey
  3. Climax: heighten the level of conflict
  4. Falling action: set up the resolution to the conflict
  5. Resolution: the conflict is resolved through catastrophe or victory and, frequently, the lesson from the journey

How might this structure apply to a story in marketing - whether a video or an important web page?

  1. Exposition: Who are the customers in your story, what's their situation
  2. Complications: What's going on in their world, what's inspiring and irritating them, their need and their tension
  3. Climax: Your brand represents a real solution - swooping and crashing into frame
  4. Falling action: This is good news for your customer, re-affirm how it helps them
  5. Resolution: Here's the next step to make their world good again

Of course - there's something missing from the above, it's just a framework after all. Now the most important bit, the art…

Applying your art and imagination to create a successful brand story

Whereas science gives us rules and structure, the art can give is the secret ingredient, the emotion, the reason for being. It provides the platform for the irrational feeling and reason that we really buy into something, as consumers.

With the science (above) as the base, we want to establish an emotional connection that in turn enables us to be able to tell the full story, rather than someone switch off and feel 'sold to' in some way. This whole idea is core to content marketing of course, to inspire, fascinate, solve and even educate an audience - in earning their permission to sell at a later date.

What are the keys to successful story-telling?

Be true: Let's, importantly, re-affirm the point by Seth Godin, avoid the b****hit, be true to your organisation at some level 🙂 Apple is probably the brand that does this the best, the reason that people tell stories about the product - the whole experience of the products, from opening the box the first time, to using them, it's something special.


Make me feel: Feel what? Passion, empathy for something, to imagine it with you. Emotion is at the heart of every good story. Stories that make us laugh or cry or feel connected, these are the ones that we enjoy hearing and the ones we remember. Putting emotion into a story about a business is not so hard either. The emotion is already there; you just have to uncover it. It's why companies so often echo their founders. Perhaps your brand has nostalgia and history, maybe you make car windscreen wipers and have immense pride at the lives saved, the visibility enabled as a result, you might find stories tin simply helping people get from one place to another. Whereas the use of emotion spans both B2C and B2B audiences, it tends to be more entertainment than informative at the B2C end.

The Chipotle video below really is something special, enviable art really. It's beautiful both visually and through the quality of the narrative as you follow the journey of the growing successful farmer who chokes on his apparent success, to come full circle back to simple farming processes. An awesome video about farming, who's have thought that. There are officially no excuses!


A 'unique' narrative: If your story does not take people on a journey where there is a transformation, a beginning, middle, and end, then it’s not a story. Think back to the '5 acts' above. So how might you get the source of inspiration to design those 5 acts?

  • Unique: It's been argued that "nothing is original" for years, though uniqueness can come from doing something your way, being true and authentic and doing something your way, for your market. Leverage your brand attributes, even if you don’t happen to have a significant mission. Find stories, look at your company, product or service, and customers - use your imagination - what makes you special?
  • People: Who are the people who deliver or manufacture your product or service? What makes them special? How do they do their jobs every day? Where are they from — in what aspects are they relevant to your audience?
  • Product: What is special about the way your product (or your service) is made or delivered? Who developed or designed your product or service? Why? How has it evolved?
  • Customers: This is the key one. Who are your customers and what makes them special? Why do they buy your product or service (or an alternative competitors maybe)? How does it help them solve a problem or meet a need? What do they like or hate about your product or service, your industry even?
  • Experience: What is it like to experience your product or service? Why is that? What's good about it? How do you manufacture your product or structure your service, and how is that different than what your competitors are doing? Why did you start doing things this way? Who developed the process you use when you decided to upgrade a process or take a different approach?

Make it yours, own your story, your way on behalf of your audience.


“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all.” ― Abraham Lincoln

An essence: If you consider the stories that you remember best - they can be boiled down to just an essence, a few sentences or a key lesson (be good to others, drive safely, help the elderly, take care of your heart). Tell your great story but also ensure that the essence is uncomplicated - this makes you easier to connect to, like, share, comment, believe - everything really. Hark back to your organisation's reason for being, simplicity of purpose and tap into the audience’s imagination so that they willingly go along for the journey. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote the (saddest) six-word story, ever: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The Dollar Shave Club commercials do a great job, as does their site at one simple story: Shaving is expensive and you forget to buy the blades, it doesn't need to be that way.

We'll close with a few words from Seth Godin, start by asking yourself three questions:

1 “What’s your story?”

2 “Will the people who need to hear this story believe it?”

3 “Is it true?”

"Got it figured? Now, go tell a story. If it doesn’t resonate, tell a different one. When you find a story that works, live that story, make it true, authentic and subject to scrutiny. All marketers are storytellers, only the losers are liars."


Author's avatar

By Danyl Bosomworth

Dan helped to co-found Smart Insights in 2010 and acted as Marketing Director until leaving in November 2014 to focus on his other role as Managing Director of First 10 Digital. His experience spans brand development and digital marketing, with roles both agency and client side for nearly 20 years. Creative, passionate and focussed, his goal is on commercial success whilst increasing brand equity through effective integration and remembering that marketing is about real people. Dan's interests and recent experience span digital strategy, social media, and eCRM. You can learn more about Dan's background here Linked In.

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