Craft Stories That Sell

This article is reprinted with permission from Siddhartha Banerjee’s LinkedIn page. Siddhartha is a Creative Head @ _VOIS (Vodafone Group) ★ IDEO certified Design Thinker ★ Int’l Speaker ★ NYU, HFI & IDF certified UI-UX Specialist

The Story of Story

If you are reading this article, then I’m guessing that you must have faced an audience before. On a stage. In a boardroom. Or just, you vs. you in front of a mirror. Did you hear a drum-roll constantly playing inside your head while the spotlight was on you? Or did you feel that butterfly that was desperately trying to get out? You are not alone. Honestly speaking, till a few years back, even after hundreds of presentations, I used to experience a state of numbness every time someone said, “The stage is yours”.

So what happened suddenly? What changed? No, I didn’t meet Gandalf or The Wizard of Oz. I met Jacques Prévert and the beggar. And this is how the story goes…

One day Jacques Prévert — a French poet, was walking down the street when he saw a blind homeless man begging. The sign read: “I am blind, please help.” However, his donation cup was empty. Mr. Prévert, instead of putting some money in the man’s cup, took the man’s sign and rewrote it.

A few days later, Mr. Prévert met the same beggar. This time, the homeless man’s cup was overflowing with money. So what had Mr. Prévert written on the man’s sign? “Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.”

Instead of just conveying an information i.e. I am blind and asking for an action i.e. please help, the sign now told a story.

Storytelling: How and Why?

We humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. It may have started way back in the Stone Age. So storytelling is not a new concept to us. The Palaeolithic humans understood, that when the sun goes down, it’s time to retire in the cave. Protect the colony from the saber-toothed carnivores; while hunt the herbivores grazing on the grassland. And these small insignificant events slowly transformed into stories and the protagonists became legends. These understandings may have created a mechanism that had made sense of the world around them. This is the ‘left-brain interpreter’, where the connection and construction of events by the left side of the brain make sense of the world around us.

And probably that’s how storytelling came into existence.

Another factor that helped storytelling to create an impact, were hormones: Cortisol, Endorphins, Serotonin, Dopamine and Oxytocin.

“First, there’s cortisol, which gets produced when something warrants our attention, like distress. Where we hear about potential threats in our environment — or hear something distressing in a story — cortisol helps us stay attentive. From a marketer’s perspective, cortisol may be the compound most closely associated with the “top of the funnel” experience — the first contact with a customer — known as awareness.

Next comes a far more popular compound — so much has been written about it — called dopamine. This gets produced to aid in an elaborate learning system that rewards us (with pleasure) when we follow the emotionally charged events in a story. This takes us further down the funnel. If cortisol helps with awareness, dopamine aids, so to speak, with arousal, rewarding us to stick with the journey.

And then comes what could very well be the wonder drug of storytelling: oxytocin. While there are many other things in the human organism that help make us social, oxytocin has been identified as a chemical that promotes prosocial, empathic behavior. And, according to the story scientists, it’s what enables us to identify with the hero/protagonist in a story.” — explains Giovanni Rodriguez in his article on Forbes

What is a Story?

Till a couple of years back, I had no idea of these Palaeolithic storytellers or happy hormones. However, I was intrigued by the storytelling on Super Bowl ads.

It’s that day of the year when almost the whole of America watch an average of 89 commercials per NFL’s Super Bowl game for an average of 46 minutes. Why are consumers willing to spend 3.5x more time watching commercials on this particular day than on any other day of the year? Is it because they want to experience the most engaging storytelling of the year from advertisers?

In 2014, researchers from Johns Hopkins conducted a content analysis of more than 100 Super Bowl commercials, and their study turned out to be contrary to the popular belief. The research upheld that content isn’t king. Irrespective of what the ad was about and whether it included dark humour or sexual connotation, what was more important was its structure. Ads that used the classic five-act story format were significantly more popular than any other commercials.

“The best advertisements tell a story that leaves people with a strong emotional sentiment”, says advertising experts from Washington State University.

Here’s a glimpse of what Super Bowl commercials look like. I have picked three ads from three different years. The first one is from a tech giant in English. The second one is from a building materials supplier in Spanish. And the third one is from an automotive manufacturer with no language. Basically there’s nothing common between these ads. Except one. Story. A series of events.

Creating Your Own Story

So how can you craft your own story? By story, I mean presentations in front of an audience. Be it in a boardroom or on a stage. Like any other creative process there is a method to the madness for storytelling too.

First things first. Would you build a house without a blueprint? No, right? In the same way, you shouldn’t tell a story without a plot. And to build the plot, what you would need is a brief. A brief is an essential part of your overall story design. It’s an action plan that validates your audience, their unmet needs and your goal.

brief consists of three parts. 

Who’s your audience? Knowing your audience is important. Are you talking to C-level executives? Or a group of nerds? You might get this by simply looking at the attendee list for a meeting. Yes, it isn’t always that easy. But the more specific you can be, the better.

What do they care about? Empathise with your audience. Think about their unmet needs. Ask yourself, what’s the most important thing to the audience you’re presenting to. If you stop with just one or two ideas, then probably you will be just scratching the surface. Dig deep. Because people are complex. And so are their needs.

What’s your point? Is it a problem that you want to solve? Or do you want to help your audience with a lingering issue? Identify what you’re trying to unlock with your story and what you want your audience to do. With your story, you’re trying to motivate a group of people towards change and taking action.

Based on the brief that you have crafted, next you would need to find the Big Idea.

A big idea is what your story is really about. Imagine yourself as Martin Scorsese. People have shown up to see your movie. They have waited long enough. What’s the one thing you want them to remember after the curtain falls?

Now it’s time to think about the medium you’ll use to convey your story. Does a static slide presentation with narration serve the purpose? Or do you have go all-out to record a video? It all depends on how would you like convey your story.

Making Ideas Tangible

Before you bring your story to life and create a mesmerising effect, you need to prototype it. Because as a storyteller, prototyping will play a huge part in your process. Oh yes, you would not need a cardboard or scissors to build a mock-up. What you need is some Post-its, a voice memo recorder (on your mobile) and a critic.

Post-it: Grab some Post-its and pen down your thoughts. Start with a ‘intro’, then ‘main points’, and finally a ‘conclusion’. You might know how to start your story, but maybe not know how to end it. Or vice-versa. That’s not a problem. Once you see your story taking shape, it will be lot easier to spot the missing links and fill them up.

Recorder: Now once you have your story skeleton, hit the record button on your mobile’s voice memo and just start talking. Keep things simple, speak naturally from the heart. Let the words flow without any obstacles.

Critic: By this time you must have a grip on what you would like to tell the world. So test it out before you meet a room full of audience. Invite friend/s for a storytelling session over a coffee or drinks and present your story in front of them. Embrace criticism. Post the session, invite feedback from them and then reflect on what you learned to make it better for the next round.

Tone is Everything

Think of tone as a regulator switch. You need to increase or decrease the intensity based on your audience. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. You don’t have to narrate like Richard Burton in the VW commercial. Neither like the Economic Teacher played by Ben Stein in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’. Just be yourself and add a bit of vigour. Your story should motivate your audience to take an action. So speak from the heart, act naturally and be passionate about the topic. Avoid jargon and businesslike tone, don’t sound like an ET and be boring.

Sharpening Your Storytelling Skills

Here’s the first set of rule that I follow while crafting my stories. It’s called Chekov’s Gun. The term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ refers to the words of the early 20th Century Russian playwright and author Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. It refers to the unspoken agreement that a writer won’t make “false promises” to a reader by introducing elements that are unexplained. In other words, if you draw attention to something, you will eventually need to reveal why it’s worth noticing.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The second set of rule or rules, I have learnt from an IDEO U course. “If a story is about a person with a problem, then you need to motivate others to help solve that problem. You’ve got to get people excited about what you’re saying. They have to feel it, see it, and believe it in order to create impact.” Here are the four tips.

  1. Make It Personal (or, bring a person into your story): Personal stories resonate with us and move us as human beings. And there’s just something sticky about character-driven narrative.
  2. Use Anecdote and Reflection: Anecdotes are the “put you in the room” moments. Reflection is the part of the story where you help the audience make sense of what they just heard. “This happened…,” “…and this happened,” “then that happened…” That’s anecdote. This simple sequencing of events creates suspense and carries people through your story. Reflection reminds people why your story matters. “I’m telling you this story because…”
  3. Get Emotional: A lot of people will tell you otherwise, but vulnerability is okay. Bring your full self into your story.
  4. Include a Call to Action: What do you want people to do after hearing your story? Don’t leave this open to interpretation. Spell it out. What do you want people to do after hearing your story? Highlight “next steps,” “what to remember,” or “the one thing you want them to do.”

The Last Words

Imagine the cavemen instead of making sense of the world around them naturally, used numbers and statistics. ‘98.2% of the inhabitants retire to their caves when the sun goes down, 28.7% will protect the colony from the carnivores, while 38.9% will hunt the herbivores.’ If this sounds ridiculous then why do we use numbers and statics while we try to put across a point? I am not denying the importance of numbers, but are they more important than empathy? Your audiences’ happy hormones will never be secreted if you would try to prove your point with statistics.

Being human. Making connections. Using logic with emotion is the key to storytelling. After all, great stories build relationship. Make people care.

Remember Jacques Prévert. It’s not what you sell. It’s the stories you tell.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.