As communicators, we all know stories are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal.
But how do you go about crafting a captivating story?
Here’s a step-by-step guide to creative storytelling that will help you win hearts, change minds, and get the results you want—whether it’s convincing a customer to buy, an employee to get on board, or a skeptical public to see your point-of-view.
First, a Story: Estela & the Candy Factory
To bring these lessons to life, let’s start with a tale about creative storytelling, which I’ve told many times, including on this very blog.
It serves as the perfect illustration of the structure and process I’ll outline below.
Estela works in a candy factory, where she’s in charge of inspecting packages of gum before they leave the plant. I asked her what she does to ensure a quality product, and she walked me through her processes, demonstrated the equipment, and showed me an extensive checklist she uses.
It was impressive, but it didn’t grab me. So I asked her about her kids, and that’s when she lit up. “They call me the Candy Lady,” she beamed. She pointed to a code on the bottom of one of the packages that identifies when and where the gum was made, right down to the individual shift and production line.
Here’s the kicker: her children know the code. So whenever her family goes to the store, her kids run straight to the candy aisle, turn over the packages of gum, and when they find the right one, announce, “This is mommy’s gum! My mommy made this gum.”
The bottom line: it’s good enough for your family because Estela is down on the line every day making sure it’s good enough for hers.
Creative Storytelling Begins with a Structure
Estela’s story relies on a simple structure: a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of a challenge or obstacle.
How the character resolves that challenge drives the narrative.
In this story, our character is Estela.
Her goal is to turn out a quality product.
The challenge she faces is how to stay focused on quality while spending hour after hour watching packages of gum go by.
She resolves the challenge by thinking of her customers as being as important to her as her children.
So there’s your structure.
Now, how do you go about your own creative storytelling?
Story Creation in a Nutshell
Creating a captivating story involves these five steps:
- Determine who your audience is and find out as much as you can about them.
- Figure out what you want them to do—buy your product, work more efficiently, follow you into battle. This is the goal.
- Think through the challenges that may get in the way of the goal—lack of budget, outdated technology, distrust.
- Find a character who overcame the challenge—by appealing to value over price, working around technology, discovering common ground.
- Make sure there’s a resolution to your story.
Understand that this doesn’t have to be a sequential process.
It’s not like building a house, where you lay the foundation first and then construct the walls, before finally adding the roof.
For instance, it’s unlikely you will simply dream up the audience you want to reach, like customers or investors, without having an idea of what you want them to do.
But for the sake of this exercise, let’s break these steps down separately and in order.
Identify and Understand Your Audience
Knowing your audience is the most important step in your creative storytelling. It’s what truly connects and resonates.
After you’ve identified your audience (employees, members, shareholders, prospects), be sure you understand them.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Who are they? Do your research. Look at product or service reviews, focus group findings, survey data, and other sources to get a handle on your audience.
- What do they want? It’s not enough for you to understand your own goal; you have to understand what your audience wants, too. A lower price? A better deal? Public recognition? Security? A sense of belonging?
- What do you have in common? What brings you together? Is it frustration over an unsolved problem? A shared sense of pride? The desire to make the world a better place?
- What are their doubts, fears, and misperceptions? Just as important as understanding what brings us together is knowing what drives us apart. Smart storytellers will have a good read on their audience’s doubts, fears, and misperceptions.
- What is their mood, mindset, and culture? Finally, you need to get a sense of what’s going on in your audience’s world. Are they unsettled? Anxious? Skeptical? Frustrated?
Estela’s story was part of an internal communications campaign.
So we reviewed employee survey results, collected anecdotal feedback from management and frontline supervisors, and interviewed employees to get a solid understanding of our audience.
Determine Your Goal
What’s your goal? Do you want your audience to buy something, or change their behavior, or get on board with their support?
With Estela’s story, our goal was to get employees to understand that quality is their job.
It doesn’t matter if they’re on the front line or in the back office—everyone is responsible for quality.
Discover the Challenges
Logically, it might make sense to map out obstacles standing in the way of your story’s goal—insufficient training, lack of teamwork, inadequate systems.
But in the real world, those challenges are often discovered as you research the story’s characters.
This is how Estela’s story unfolded.
We interviewed lots of different employees to find out how they go about ensuring quality.
Using that process, we uncovered a host of challenges—boredom, technology, supply issues, and shift changes.
We also discovered many resolutions—how they solved those problems—which shows this is not necessarily a linear process.
Find the Right Character
Your character is literally and figuratively the heart of the story.
They are the center of everything—the most important element—and they should make us feel something in our hearts, providing the emotional resonance critical to a story’s success.
So your number one job as a storyteller is to find a character to which your audience can relate.
(And what’s more relatable than a mom looking out for her children?)
Choose a character which is as close as possible to your audience in both situation and circumstance.
Employees will more easily relate to fellow employees, customers to other customers, insurance brokers to insurance brokers, and so on.
Bring it to Resolution
Think of your story as a Hollywood blockbuster.
In the end, the enemy is vanquished, boy gets girl, justice is served.
There’s a reason these movies are so popular: they give audiences what they want—a clear and satisfactory conclusion.
Your story should not be in the style of indie or art house cinema, where characters don’t change, and problems go unresolved.
The indie film may be truer to everyday life, but it’s not particularly satisfying for general audiences.
So make sure your story resolves itself in some way.
The most straightforward approach is the character achieving the goal.
Alternatively, the character may discover the initial goal wasn’t important after all, leading to personal growth or a new direction.
If you’re very lucky, stories will just fall into your lap.
And these days there are multiple ways stories come to us—online reviews, customer feedback, social media.
But even when they do, you’ll probably have to refine and shape them to bring out their full potential.
And when they don’t come easily, you’ll have to look for them.
This process should provide a practical, easy-to-follow roadmap for finding, shaping, and telling the kinds of stories that will get you the results you’re seeking.