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Guest

The Three Elements of Storytelling

By: Guest | February 21, 2012 | 
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Erik HareToday’s guest post is written by Erik Hare.

The black and white TV images flickered inside the homes of viewers. A woman in a long dress and heels sashayed to the rhythm of the announcer proclaiming how easy the Robo-matic washer is to use ahead of the punchline – “Goodbye, Blue Monday!”

The baseball player could not slam the ball through the plastic that acted just like Guardal – “Protects your teeth!”

Thirty second morality plays flashed a quick and simple kind of storytelling bent to sell products.  The morals were clear: Modern products created a more elegant, clean, and easy life.

The craft of storytelling is important because it gets the message into the guts, not the head, of the reader.  It makes a connection that is deeper, more meaningful, and more permanent. It informs at a level that facts, figures, and bullet points never dream of reaching.

Storytelling has long been an important marketing tool. “Branding” is humanizing a product – telling a story that makes it personal. The difference today is the stories are told in little plays as well as in words. Social media is actually making us more literate.

This progression in storytelling is far from new. 

In ancient Athens, learning and culture were moved from word-of-mouth, crystallized into plays and speeches, to carefully crafted and more verbose written works. One of the great teachers, Aristotle, outlined the craft of storytelling for any medium in his work, “Poetics.”  During the course of 2,500 years, his outline has been polished into a process that anyone can learn.

There are only three critical elements to the craft of storytelling, each described with a rich and flavorful word. Understanding each concept intuitively along with how they work together is essential to the storytelling craft.

  1. Unity is a clear moral and purpose – the story must be about something. Real life doesn’t always make sense, but a story must.  Distractions fill the progress of our days, but a story has to move along from one point to another. Everything in a story advances the message or moral.
  2. Verisimilitude is the authenticity or “truthiness” of the setting and action. SciFi or fantasy works when the characters, no matter how alien or fantastic the situation, behave in a way the reader can relate to. Marketing is no different because this is what delivers the message to the guts.
  3. Orchestration is simply the process of moving through the paces of the story. It has to scan so that readers can follow it. A false step, and the reader can be lost, and the unity or verisimilitude is broken.

Mastery of these elements is what storytelling is all about, regardless of its purpose. Storytelling is a craft, not an art, because it requires attention to detail that comes largely from experience and study. It can be learned.

More importantly, storytelling is far from new – even in marketing. To proclaim it as the latest “thing” is to ignore centuries of work that has been put into describing and polishing this craft to the fine sheen necessary to be a good storyteller. To tell a story is to have first learned a story, and the story of storytelling itself is one of the great ones.

Selling washing machines or toothpaste in 30 second morality plays may not seem to have much in common with Aristotle, but they do.

Our new media gives us opportunities to expand our storytelling skills much like they did for those who created the basis of nearly everything we know. We have a lot to learn from them as we practice the gentle and seductive craft of telling a story.

Erik Hare consults with (very) small business in social media and other ways to tell their story in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He has years of experience writing and editing novels. Erik is available for talks, small classes, radio or podcast guest commenting, and a variety of teaching moments to suit any occasion.  You can find him on Twitter at @wabbitoid or on his blog Barataria and at his professional services page MediaHare

His most recent piece is a detailed example of the Hero’s Journey in advertising

33 comments
jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

The real key is, of course, recognizing how these elements balance to tell a gripping, riveting story. As one of those literature-types (and I'm not the only one who hangs out here in the comments ;)), story has always been at the center of my understanding for any consumer good, product or service - I just don't know how to view it in any other way!

scribblinghappy
scribblinghappy

As more English and Journalism majors find their way into marketing and PR, I think story will become even more important. None of us care what a product can do if it will not have an impact on our life. All we care about is how it will help us or make us feel.

Will_Berend
Will_Berend

@wabbitoid Hey! It has been a while. My blog reading has been lacking recently. I'm up for meeting. I'll send you a DM.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

@jasonkonopinski With you on the last part. As to the first, I'm convinced that most of it can be learned with practice, which is why I say it's a "craft". Opinions vary, 'natch.

But yes, many of us look for the narrative. I yell at bad commercials all the time. :-)

ideabloke
ideabloke

@wabbitoid My pleasure, Erik. I'm always fascinated by the components of storytelling. :p

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

@scribblinghappy This is what "branding" is all about - humanizing a product or service so that people can relate to it. What has really changed in terms of media is that we have the opportunity to put out a longer narrative text. At some point, people will expect it, too! So having this "backstory" is a big plus now, but it will be required at some point in the future. Something did change, but it's more a matter of the space we have to deliver the story.

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