Deconstructing Storytelling

In BDPros News, Marketing by Marita Peterson

Storytelling is one of the hottest business topics today, next to “data-driven decision making” and “machine learning.” The advice you find is pretty standard and there’s nothing wrong with “make it personal” and “make it emotionally compelling” – in fact, those are key aspects of effective storytelling.

But as you look around blogs and LinkedIn, reading emotionally compelling brand story after emotionally compelling brand story, it starts to get a bit stale. There’s a formula being used, and you can tell.

It feels as if everyone went to some sort of story generator online, popped in a few words like they’re setting up merge tags in an email marketing platform, took what the generator spit out, polished it up a bit and said, “Here! My brand story!” and posted it everywhere, like all the other motivational brand stories out there that came from the same generator.

Maybe that’s too harsh, but it’s clear something is missing. Let’s explore that a little.

Starting at the top, we’re going to review some of the advice that’s already out there.

Our Google search term: “write a compelling brand story.”

Let’s look at the results on the front page – the first 9 articles. Broken down into buckets, the advice the 9 articles gave is:

  1. Make it human/authentic – 7 articles
  2. Define your mission/understand your brand – 5 articles
  3. Status quo, conflict, resolution – 5 articles
  4. Define your audience – 4 articles
  5. Define your brand values, personality, and tone – 3 articles
  6. Make up/use main characters – 3 articles
  7. Use your origin story –3 articles
  8. Study storytelling/use storytelling elements – 2 articles
  9. Add visuals – 2 articles

Several articles also mentioned being creative with the medium you use, getting customer stories involved, keeping stories simple and succinct, and other good advice.

You can read the articles here:

  1. Craft Your Brand Story in 8 Simple Steps by Jacob Cass at Just Creative
  2. 4 Tips For Crafting A Compelling Brand Story by Steve Olenski at Forbes
  3. How to Tell a Compelling Brand Story [Guide + Examples] by Clifford Chi at Hubspot
  4. How To Write Compelling Brand Stories That Captivate Your Audience by Michelle Volpe-Kohler at Better Marketing
  5. 8 Ways to Tell Your Most Compelling Brand Story by Lisa Smith at WordStream
  6. 6 Key Elements to Writing a Compelling Brand Story by Guest Author at Rebrandly
  7. How to Create a Compelling Brand Story by Wix
  8. The importance of creating a compelling brand story for your startup by Month Shehu at Founder’s Marketing Playbook
  9. How to Create an Authentic Brand Story that Actually Improves Trust by Neil Patel

All of the advice is valid and sound, but there is something missing, and we’re going to go on the (long) journey together to really define what storytelling is at its core, because the key to being a good storyteller is understanding the concepts and how they work together.

This is going to be multiple parts, so you’re going to want to subscribe, but here is a brief outline of what is going to be covered in our super fun multi-part series!

  1. What is storytelling and why is it significant?
  2. Why do so many stories feel empty and bland?
  3. How do I define my brand and mission?
  4. How do I make my story “human”?
  5. What are “storytelling elements”?
  6. How do I use “characters”?
  7. Setting up your “storytelling elements”
  8. The narrative structure that (almost) all effective stories use (that’s novels, movies, short stories, TV shows, plays, you name it)
  9. Put it into practice!
  10. Medium is secondary

What is Storytelling?

Raise your hand if you know the answer.

Yes, you, in the back!

Correct. Storytelling is… telling a story.

Okay, now the answer you really want: why is storytelling significant?

Here we go!

It has to do with history.

Humanity hasn’t always had written language. Even after it had been invented by multiple cultures, it took time to spread from language to language. On top of that, for the most part, literacy was not widespread. There were only a few people who could read and write.

Despite these thousands and thousands of years with no access to writing, humans have told stories. Before writing, storytelling was the method for passing information from generation to generation. It still is, in some cultures.

A great example of this is perhaps the most well-known book in the world: The Bible. Nearly every story in The Bible was originally oral tradition passed down from generation to generation until eventually, somebody wrote it down.

So, in the vast history of human existence, writing systems are relatively new, but storytelling? It is ancient. It has been a part of our daily existence for tens of thousands of years, and while we have textbooks and recorded history and the scientific method now, the main method for sharing information is still storytelling.

There is a reason it’s so significant in our lives – whatever the psychological mechanism is that makes it work, it ticks some boxes in our weird human brains that makes remembering easier. Context is key because information without context is easily forgotten and of little use.

Did you know that scientific theory and our modern human understanding of history as a series of facts is relatively recent?

What matters to us, currently, are proven facts. We know things work a certain way or happened a certain way because there is demonstrable proof of it. For us, facts = truth.

The further back you go, the less proof we have, and the less important facts become. What mattered was truth. The “facts” – the context – only mattered in that they helped make the story of the truth memorable.

They were the vehicle that helped deliver the truth from one person to another. 

Think of fables and parables – allegorical stories designed to be both interesting and give the reader a lesson.

The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. If you know these stories, you’ve learned these lessons and they are very likely a part of your moral code, the rules you live by, because that’s what these stories intended to do.

Now, we’re not going to try to write fantastical fables that will pass down our brand story from generation to generation, but this is an illustration of how powerful storytelling can be.

On the topic of brand stories, which ones come to mind first? You can probably think of a few. There have been actual, real-life, Hollywood movies made about some of these brands.

It’s a powerful tool. It’s much easier to develop a meaningful brand story when you understand the importance of stories and different narrative structures than it is to take a few pieces of the surface level advice and try to figure it out through trial and error.

You can do it.

Next lesson we’re going to dissect the anatomy of a story which will help us begin to understand why so many stories feel empty, bland, and boring; how to arrange your brand identity so the story you tell isn’t empty, bland, and boring; and we’ll touch on character development and making stories “human” (which we will go further into depth later in our little series).

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