Yvette Pistorio

Storytelling 101: Getting Back to the Basics

By: Yvette Pistorio | October 28, 2013 | 

The Power of StorytellingBy Yvette Pistorio

Storytelling doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Yet everyone has a story to tell, including brands.

As marketers, we are constantly telling stories – from our organization’s history and tales of customers and employees to stories about our products and services – and we have an opportunity to share the wealth.

As I said a few weeks ago in Gin and Topics, we are wired for stories. The most memorable stories have real characters people can relate to, who draw our attention or elicit an emotional response.

Keith Ecker, content strategist at Jaffe PR, spoke about storytelling Content Jam. He reminded me, even though we tell stories every day, sometimes we need to go back to the basics.

Storytelling Basics

Here is Ecker’s recipe – the critical elements of a good story:

  • Characters: You need to have at least two.
  • Content: The who, what, when, and where.
  • Motivations: The why, an unfulfilled gap.
  • Conflict: The juiciest part of the story.
  • Resolution: The realization, epiphany, or takeaway

Susan Gunelius, contributor to Forbes adds, “…the best brand storytellers understand the critical elements of fiction writing, which are skills  few marketers have been formally trained to do.”

Three Stories Every Brand Should Tell

Once you have these elements, you need to figure out what kind of story you want to tell. I hate when I hear people say, “But our story isn’t interesting/fun/emotional/insert excuse here.” You can be in a “boring” industry, but you can also tell your stories in a compelling way.

What stories should we tell? How about one of the following.

Employee Stories

Employee stories can be about how someone got a job, their role within your organization, how are they successful, why they wanted to work for your organization, or even what they do on their off time – their hobbies or volunteer work.

For example, IBM used the “Are you an IBMer” as a recruitment tool, and guess what? It was effective.

The employee stories gave the tech giant a human face, and communicated the similar interests, trials, and triumphs their employees have with consumers.

Customer Stories

Let your customers talk about why your brand is so great. Are you fixing a problem? Reducing costs? Helping them run their business more efficiently?

Mailchimp is really, really good at this. They interview customers and showcase the creative ways they use the product. They are like mini-case studies on video.

Brand Stories

If your brand isn’t telling a compelling story, it will be hard to stand out from the crowd. I love how Debbie Williams of SPROUT Content puts it, “Your story is made up of “all that you are, and all that you do.”

TOMS shoes is a great example of how to tell a brand story. They focus on making their philanthropic story the heart of their company. They extended this online with their One for One campaign, they share donation stories on their YouTube channel, and use their blog to explore how their movement affects real people in the world.

People don’t spend time on boring stories. Make sure the storytelling you do is engaging, emotional and creative. Even with all the new technology available today, humans love a great tale – and crafting a compelling one packs a powerful marketing punch.

About Yvette Pistorio

Yvette Pistorio is the shared media manager for Arment Dietrich. She is a lover of pop culture, cupcakes, and HGTV, and enjoys a good laugh. There are a gazillion ways you can find her online.

  • susancellura

    Hey @yvettepistorio! I truly enjoyed reading this post. A great reminder of key points in telling a story. I currently fall into the “our business is too boring” category (until this Friday). The company’s internal newsletter was a mish-mash of listings of new hires, latest rig counts, and district reports (summarized into one-two sentences) – in a PDF.  
    I redesigned it into an email format with (gasp!) hyperlinks. But the key to its success and the comments letting me know it was a success was finding and adding in the human side to business success stories. Recognizing the guys on the rig who went out of their way to ensure the customer was wowed, adding in pictures, etc., has gone a long way into upping the readership. And yes, some of these stories can easily be converted into external ones!

    • susancellura Thanks Susan!!
      See!! Even a “boring” company can tell their stories in a compelling way. Perfect example 🙂 And kudos to you for showing the human side – that’s what we relate to.

      • Just like David Ogilvy said — there are no boring products (companies) … only boring copywriters (storytellers!)  I’m vicariously excited for your new initiative, susancellura … it sounds like you’re knocking it out of the park.
        And this is an awesome rundown,  yvettepistorio! I especially love the “people don’t spend time on boring stories” nugget. I might borrow that in the not-so-distant future, if you don’t mind!

        • DwayneAlicie susancellura Thanks Dwayne!! And borrow away 😀

  • Employee stories give the real insider’s look at the culture inside the walls of your organization and that’s important for a lot of people. In some ways, it’s a page taken straight from the playbook of many cause organizations — don’t tell people what you do, show them.  
    Marc Benioff of Salesforce is really, really good at this. At last year’s Dreamforce keynote, he told stories about how various (very large) companies embraced a collaborative culture (ostensibly made possible because they were Salesforce customers) without ever mentioning the product. Masterful.

  • Southwest is also great at customer story telling. I’m also a big fan of Anthropolgie’s brand stories. They do a magnificent job, in my opinion, of transporting their customers into a different realm through visual story telling.

    • KateFinley Yes, love Southwest and Anthro too – so many good options. I was trying to find more B2B options cause that’s where I hear the most excuses. Obviously I failed with TOMS but I love what they do and how they tell their stories on so many different channels.

  • Terrific post, yvettepistorio…we were chatting a bit about this in Sean’s webinar last week.  How do you make XYZ sexy, interesting, etc?  I love how you made it easy peasy for us! 😉

    • lizreusswig Hey Liz! Thank you!! I tried to make it easy peasy!!

  • I am so excited to work with StoryStudio. If anything, they’ll make me a better speaker, but I hope to inject some of my fiction inclinations into blogging and the other content we develop.

  • Hi yvettepistorio! Loved you post, especially Storytelling basics which we so often forget about. Speaking of boring industries, I think one of the best examples (I´ve seen) that if you really want you can make your story interesting, is Volvo Trucks with the lunch of their new truck FL. Imagination and creativity were the keys to their success. Volvo found a way to tell an interesting story (involving their employees) about a boring industry. 

    • @corinamanea Thanks Corina!! Yes, definitely forget about them – I’m guilty myself too so it was nice that Keith got back to the basics with his presentation and brought it all back full circle to what marketers can do. 
      Love this Volvo story!!

    • @corinamanea yvettepistorio Incredible video, wow. I have to figure out how to do that for higher education.

    • keithecker

      @corinamanea yvettepistorio I work as the Content Strategist at an legal marketing agency. While big-ticket litigation can be “sexy” (and has a built-in story with great conflict and characters with strong motivations), a lot of what I have to broadcast to the public is seemingly more boring in nature (bankruptcy transactions are the worst!). 
      But there’s a way to do it. A recent initiative we did was getting attention for a firm that worked on the purchase of an asset under the bankrupt Hostess company. While the technical aspects of the deal were less than exciting, the story we decided to push was about the journey the purchaser/our client firm took to resurrect a beloved snack brand, much to the delight of snackers everywhere.

      • keithecker yvettepistorio Wow, this is great news! As Shakespeare said “If there is a good will, there is a great way!”

        • @corinamanea keithecker LOL! There is always a way – Keith – love how you shared the journey of resurrecting a snack brand – such a great idea and shows how you can take something technical (i.e. “boring”) and turn it into a great story.

  • It’s a huge cop out when companies say “we’re too boring” or “we don’t have any interesting news to share.” I imagine it’s a pretty good warning sign that they are to be avoided….no imagination or work ethic are the obvious corollaries there…

    • JoeCardillo It seems they just don’t want to put in the time and effort. Or maybe they just don’t know how to do it and they don’t want to fail – who knows, but definitely a cop out.

      • yvettepistorio JoeCardillo Great two points…sometimes the cop out is due to laziness and sometimes it is due to not just failure but a fear of your competitors jumping all over your stories and using them to your advantage.
        I wanted to tell one of our original stories because I thought it showed innovation, work ethic, and the ability to function under intense pressure. My leadership team thought that competitors may jump on the story as we “fly by the seat of our pants”.
        It’s all in the perspective…

        • dbvickery yvettepistorio JoeCardillo That’s a good point Brian, I think the thing that’s crucial is not to halfway whichever direction you go (although I would always prefer the less boring one). Was actually just thinking about this in relation to crisis comms b/c of the Buffer thing…. http://tech.co/buffer-hacked-2013-10

        • JoeCardillo dbvickery yvettepistorio Yeah, the Buffer story (and emails to users) definitely met the crisis head-on and with class, courtesy, and sincere apologies.
          Great way to make new fans and build strong advocates!

      • yvettepistorio JoeCardillo I was just going to post this exact same comment, so I’ll just comment here instead. Yvette, you’ve put together a great overview here of so many options that ANY company can use. Everyone has a story, they just need to find it and let it be told (the latter I think is the harder part for most)

        • LauraPetrolino JoeCardillo Thanks Laura!!! You just have to know where to look for the stories so hopefully this post helps some people…and I agree, telling it can be the hardest part for some.

    • JoeCardillo Probably boring people, too.

  • Nice post!
    I wondered how Ecker was going to tie story elements directly to content, but he did it and gave some great examples. Also liked his comparisons to the hero story/case study, genesis story/about us, and character sketches/bios.
    I’m so glad to have formal “creative” writing training behind me…training that, as you mentioned, few marketers seem to have. Incredible tool.

    • keithecker

      Word Ninja Hi Word Ninja! Thanks for the kind words. I used to think that coming from a creative writing and journalism background put me at a disadvantage. But I realized that journalism/creative writing is all about selling a story/information to an audience. So the principles that apply to creative/journalistic content seem to naturally work in the marketing context.

      • keithecker I have the same background and agree. Journ and creative writing ed at Columbia (was nice to be back there for Content Jam) then in newspaper and PR since. Btw, I was sitting kitty corner from you at The Scout after hours…sorry I didn’t take the chance to tell you then I enjoyed the session!

    • Word Ninja I was trying to put in the hero story/genesis story/ etc, but I was WAY over word count – maybe a follow up post?!

      • yvettepistorio Sounds good, but your post was great and hit the most important aspects.

  • keithecker

    Thanks, Yvette, for the mention. I’m flattered! 
    Great post! I love creative writing, and I love marketing. I’m so happy that I no longer feel like I have to choose between my two passions, when in fact creative writing principles can help enhance my marketing efforts.

    • keithecker Hey Keith! Yes, creative writing principles help marketing so much!! It’s something I struggle with and I”m sure a lot of others do as well. 
      I really enjoyed you presentation at Content Jam!! And brought me back to the basics of storytelling – putting into use now, so thank you 🙂

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