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 potency 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 has 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 here, the rest is not likely to matter at all.

But there’s a whole other level.

Consider the following six word faux ad (frequently misattributed to Hemingway).

For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.

Baby shoes.

Regardless who wrote the second ad, it’s a million times better than “horse for sale.”

Especially when it comes to impact.

Why?

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

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

Plus it evokes emotion and potentially transforms the reader.

Story wins.

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

Triple AAA advice from the masters

All three of these storytelling geniuses have Christian names begining 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

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