3 Effective Storytelling Secrets for Marketers

Three sto­ry­telling nuggets from world-class screen­writ­ers that can trans­form how you deliv­er mar­ket­ing mes­sages.

6 min. read


Many mar­keters are nat­ur­al sto­ry­tellers. 

I’m not.

I have to work at it.

So I’ve been try­ing to under­stand sto­ry­telling bet­ter.

Over the past few years the con­cept of sto­ry­telling has been hog­ging the spot­light. Count­less authors and coach­es have extolled its evo­lu­tion­ary ancient-ness and it’s effec­tive­ness as maybe the orig­i­nal and quin­tes­sen­tial human form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

And sto­ry­telling is no fad. It has stay­ing pow­er.

I think one rea­son is that it’s a top­ic of lim­it­less depth.

Every time I uncov­er some­thing, I find lay­ers of undis­cov­ered coun­try to wrap my head around. It’s too big a top­ic for a sin­gle blog post.

So let’s look at it one lit­tle chunk at a time.

Pre­sen­ta­tion design mas­ter Nan­cy Duarte, said, “Over the years I worked on thou­sands of pre­sen­ta­tions but when I sought to find out what fea­tures dis­tin­guish the tru­ly great ones I found the answers in screen­writ­ing, Greek and Shake­speare­an dra­ma, mythol­o­gy, lit­er­a­ture, and phi­los­o­phy.”

I found the answers in screen­writ­ing…

—Nan­cy Duarte

Part of my own deep dive was read­ing screen­plays and under­stand­ing what sto­ry­tellers in pop­u­lar movies were doing to appeal to mass audi­ences.

The three secrets I’ll describe here are com­mon prac­tice among mas­ter sto­ry­tellers as they craft a scene. But first…

What does story look like?

Horse for Sale

A men­tor of mine first intro­duced me to the “horse for sale” con­cept when we were work­ing on ad copy. The idea is that “horse for sale” is unam­bigu­ous, con­cise, and clear.

It says exact­ly what it means. It is unmis­tak­able.

There’s a lot of mar­ket­ing copy that would ben­e­fit from the “horse for sale” stan­dard. Does it sim­ply, clear­ly and direct­ly com­mu­ni­cate the offer? If you miss on this, the rest will like­ly not mat­ter at all.

But now con­sid­er the fol­low­ing six word faux ad fre­quent­ly mis­at­trib­uted to Hem­ing­way.

For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.

Regard­less who wrote the sec­ond ad, it’s a mil­lion times bet­ter than “horse for sale” when it comes to the impact of sto­ry.

Why?

Because “Horse for sale” is clear but it doesn’t make us feel any­thing. There’s no sto­ry.

Baby shoes” is still clear, con­cise even with twice the words), and unam­bigu­ous.

And it evokes emo­tion, poten­tial­ly trans­forms the read­er.

Sto­ry wins.

But what’s a writer to do to make a sto­ry out of pablum copy or con­tent lit­ter? Here are three tips from great screen­writ­ers that any­one can use.

Triple AAA advice from the masters

Entire­ly by coin­ci­dence all three of the sto­ry­telling genius­es Chris­t­ian names begin with the let­ter A.

I’m talk­ing about Alfred Hitch­cock, Aaron Sorkin, and Andrew Stan­ton.

All three of these writ­ers are mas­ters of mov­ing an audi­ence and what could be more rel­e­vant for mar­keters?

Enter late, leave early

Alfred Hitch­cock said, “What is dra­ma but life with the dull bits cut out?”

Alfred Hitch­cock

Sub­se­quent writ­ers and direc­tors have cap­tured Hitchcock’s sen­ti­ment in the phrase enter late, leave ear­ly.

For screen­writ­ers, enter late means that it’s okay to open a scene right in the mid­dle of the action. The audi­ence does­n’t need much time to fig­ure out what’s going on.

What’s hap­pen­ing is usu­al­ly all the con­text they need.

It turns out that human beings are pret­ty good at rapid­ly assess­ing a sit­u­a­tion. There’s prob­a­bly some evo­lu­tion­ary expla­na­tion about why this helped our ances­tors avoid get­ting eat­en by tigers.

Who knows?

What I do know is that mar­keters can hijack the brain’s sys­tems for quick ori­en­ta­tion by skip­ping lengthy set­up, expla­na­tion, and expo­si­tion.

Try it some time. Trim the set­up for your mes­sage and allow the con­text to com­mu­ni­cate it for you.

Leav­ing ear­ly is sim­i­lar­ly about dra­mat­ic tim­ing. One you’ve made your point, there’s no need to linger.

Thor­ough­ly explain­ing a joke doesn’t make it more fun­ny.

The delib­er­ate manip­u­la­tion of the chronol­o­gy for dra­mat­ic effect is what makes it sto­ry­telling instead of a diary.

Intention and obstacle

Aaron Sorkin, author of titles like A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and The Social Net­work said, “Dra­ma is inten­tion and obsta­cles, some­body wants some­thing, some­thing is stand­ing in their way of get­ting it.”

Aaron Sorkin

This is the essence of dra­mat­ic con­flict.

As mar­keters, cre­at­ing inten­tion and obsta­cle may seem like the purview of fic­tion writ­ers alone.

How­ev­er, sto­ries with char­ac­ters cause our brains and emo­tion to syn­the­size with the sto­ry­teller.

Mar­keters can not only com­mu­ni­cate ideas, but by using sto­ry­telling tech­niques, they can actu­al­ly trans­mit the feel­ings they want in their audi­ence. If that’s not the dark arts, I don’t know what is.

So how do we cast char­ac­ters in mar­ket­ing sto­ries?

For mar­keters, the cus­tomer is always the pro­tag­o­nist. We are our best when we act as men­tors in the story—wise teach­ers whose job is not to take over the hero’s role, but to illu­mi­nate some­thing that allows the hero to ful­fill her role.

The oppor­tu­ni­ty to use inten­tion and obsta­cle is hid­den in the prob­lem-solu­tion struc­ture of case stud­ies, tes­ti­mo­ni­als, and ad copy.

What is the prob­lem faced by your ICP?

That’s the obsta­cle.

And how can it be an obsta­cle unless it’s get­ting in the way of some­thing your ICP wants?

That desire is inten­tion.

All the build­ing blocks are there.

Two plus two 

Andrew Stan­ton

My third resource is Andrew Stan­ton.

Stan­ton joined Pixar in 1990, was a writer on Toy Sto­ry, writer and direc­tor on A Bug’s Life, Find­ing Nemo, Wall‑E and oth­ers. He’s been nom­i­nat­ed for six oscars and won two. He is among the pan­theon of great sto­ry­tellers of our time.

Andrew Stan­ton him­self gave us a wealth of tips in his TED talk.

But the piece of advice I chose as one of my three, is to give the audi­ence two plus two instead of just giv­ing them four.

Why is this so use­ful?

Because any con­clu­sion the audi­ence arrives at them­selves is way more impact­ful than one we spoon-feed them.

The open­ing scene of Find­ing Nemo uses this tech­nique. We are intro­duced to Mar­lin and Coral, two clown fish watch­ing over their eggs, excit­ed­ly talk­ing about the prospects of being new par­ents.

And then they are attacked by a bar­racu­da. We get two plus two. Coral looks at the bar­racu­da, then down at her un-hatched babies. We know she is more con­cerned about them than she is about her­self. The bar­racu­da charges, but what hap­pens next is not shown.

We arrive at the con­clu­sion that Coral sac­ri­ficed her­self. Adding to the tragedy, her sac­ri­fice was only able so save one egg.

Because we are left to fill in these blanks—because we were giv­en two plus two, but not four—the emo­tion­al set­up of Mar­lin’s sin­gle-par­ent over-pro­tec­tive­ness is more deeply and emo­tion­al­ly estab­lished.

Sim­i­lar­ly, if we can struc­ture a sto­ry­line for our audi­ence that allows them to con­nect the dots, we can deliv­er mes­sages with more impact.

Arriv­ing at one’s own con­clu­sion is just so much more con­vinc­ing than being told what to think.

Application

These three exam­ples are con­sid­er­a­tions for writ­ing scenes—which are pret­ty gran­u­lar build­ing blocks of sto­ry­telling. And which is why they are so applic­a­ble. You can deliv­er the emo­tion­al punch of great sto­ry­telling, even in small chunks.

Keep in mind these tips from the greats.

  1. Enter late, leave ear­ly.
  2. Inten­tion and obsta­cle
  3. Two plus two

Whether you are plan­ning a new cam­paign, guid­ing your team through fresh copy, or script­ing your next series of YouTube videos, keep these sto­ry­telling tips in mind to deliv­er more impact­ful mes­sages.

If you’ve got a great sto­ry­telling tip for mar­keters, I’d love to hear about it in the com­ments below.


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P.S. You may enjoy these addi­tion­al resources.

50 Writ­ing Lessons From Aaron Sorkin On dra­ma, atti­tude, being an artist, and great dia­logue

by Niklas Göke

Aaron Sork­in’s Mas­ter Class on Screen­writ­ing

Which I have tak­en and high­ly rec­om­mend.

Pixars 22 Sto­ry­telling Tips

by Ryan Koo

@cmo_zen is a blog of micro med­i­ta­tions for mar­ket­ing man­agers, designed to help them find clar­i­ty and peace in the mar­ket­ing mael­strom.


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