Laura Petrolino

12 Days of Christmas: Five Rules of Effective Storytelling

By: Laura Petrolino | December 10, 2018 | 
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12 Days of Christmas: Five Rules of Effective StorytellingOn the fifth day of Christmas, Spin Sucks gives to you…five rules for effective storytelling, four productivity tools, three books on writing, two marketing trends, and a professional goal for 2019.

The phrase “effective storytelling” is like a communicator’s favorite teddy bear. We cuddle up with it, take it with us everywhere, turn to it when we are feeling blue or needy, but if asked to really lay out what makes it….well, “effective” we are often at a loss.

Just like teddy, the magic of effective storytelling is often something we just “feel,” but can’t often break down into pieces and describe.

Communications is art and a science and it’s easy to focus solely on the “art” side of storytelling, which can’t be described. But effective storytelling has a very important “science” side too.

Understanding that side…the elements and rules that make a story drive real results for a brand, that’s what allows us to turn a good story into a strategic one.

So today we are going to do just that and give you the five rules for effective storytelling.

Effective Storytelling: Why We Tell Stories

First let’s start with why we tell stories, both as humans and as communicators.

At its core, storytelling is how we understand the world. It is how we make the unrelatable, relatable and dissect the world around us into something important (or not important) to our human existence.

We are constantly filtering information:

  • Is this important to me?
  • Is this unimportant to me?
  • Does this matter to my survival, well-being, future?

Stories help us filter, categorize, and decide where we focus our attention and gift our trust. 

Our world is made up of stories—the stories we tell ourselves and those we hear from others. And those stories control how we view the world.

As communicators trying to create effective messages, we must understand how these stories affect our target consumer.

As well as how we can create organizational stories to help our messaging resonate and integrate effectively into their pre-existing worldview.

Rule #1: Understand Your Brand Type

In order to provide effective storytelling, you first need to understand your brand type.

In general, every organization falls into one of three categories. You can be a hybrid, but you’ll always have a primary category.

  • Reinforcer
  • Supporter
  • Challenger

Are You a Reinforcer Brand?

Your stories reinforce your audience’s worldview but present a better solution. They work within the frames they already use and therefore are trusted and more easily accepted.

This works well for brands which are highly niche-focused and know the needs and wants of their consumer exceptionally well. They are directed, targeted, and resonate clearly.

Are You a Supporter Brand?

These stories support change.

Supporter brands introduce a needed and wanted concept or innovation.

But change is still change. Human nature will almost always push against it, even when it is asked for. Stories from this brand type must support behavior change and establish new habits. They must be persuasive, educational, and comforting.

Are You a Challenger Brand?

Challenger brands have the most difficult time telling stories that resonate, but effective storytelling is MOST important for them.

They challenge their target audience’s view of the world, their preconceptions, and behaviors.

These stories must be inspiring, persuasive, and edgy. They also must use exceptionally targeted language which resonates within the consumer’s current worldview (even though the message itself may contradict).

You can learn more about what type of brand you are and how to create stories around it here, here, and here.

Rule #2: Be Consistent

Once upon a time….. (see what I did there!?!) people told stories in only one, or max two ways.

But those were simpler times. Times when woodland creatures broke out into song and danced on the regular, handsome and charming princes roamed around looking for princesses to save, and fairy godmothers created all the best shoes.  

In today’s world, you have to buy your own shoes and never tell a story in one way or across a single channel.

You tell it through different mediums, in different ways, across different channels. There are endless opportunities for creative storytelling. 

So consistency in your storytelling is not only crucial, it can be extremely difficult.

Kylie McMullan summed it up well in a recent Spin Sucks Question on good storytelling,

Brand storytelling isn’t just about one piece of content, it’s also about consistency of materials and the entire package that’s being shared.

I think an example of a company that is exceptional at this is Nature’s Path Organic Foods.

Every piece of content they put out, from their website, videos, social media content, and sponsorships, reinforces who they are: organic, family-owned and operated, and socially conscious.

In order to be good at brand storytelling, brands need to decide which key messages they want to communicate that are core and authentic to their brand, and then find interesting and creative ways to share those messages.

In other words, follow rule #1 and discover what type of brand you are, craft your stories around that, and then be consistent.

One good way to ensure consistency across all channels is to create a brand personality document.

Rule #3: Listen Continuously

The most effective storytelling is dynamic. They are consistent and targeted, but not unmoving or stagnant.

A good story is a living document that ebbs and flows with its listener and adjusts its path to be able to maintain its message and power.

In order to do this, you must listen. Really listen.

Most people think they are good listeners but actually, stink at it.

A good way to figure out if you are really a good listener is to ask yourself this question:

Do people tell you personal and private things about them without being prompted or encouraged?

If the answer is yes, you are probably a pretty good listener. If not, you need to read these tips on active listening to improve this skill (read them even if you answered yes, you can never be too good of a listener).

Rule #4: Practice Empathy

The best storytellers are empaths. They feel great empathy for those around them and it shines through their story. Because only when you understand someone else’s world can you create a story which resonates with it. A story that matters.

Rule four of effective storytelling is to cultivate empathy for your target audience.

Learn more about how to be more empathetic here and here, and why reading fiction helps you be more empathetic.

Rule #5: Use Emotion

Content which provokes an emotional response is one of the most powerful drivers of action there is. 

In that same Spin Sucks Question on good storytelling (read it already people) Joe Rutland summed it up well:

For me, telling a good story involves getting people’s attention through giving them an emotional buy-in.

A great example, storytelling example, advertising-wise, is Budweiser’s yearly Christmas ads with the Clydesdales and dogs.

It’s done in a way to stir memories of sweet holiday times, winter, and leaves a viewer having warm fuzzies. People are left remembering both the story and the product.

Effective emotional storytelling must combine authenticity and consistency. It must stay true to your brand type and clear to your audience.

Budweiser nails their emotional message year-after-year.

And as Mike Connell adds,

“while they pull at our heartstrings, they do it in a way that has consistently reflected who they are as a brand.”

You can find some other great examples of emotional storytelling, in particular when dealing with difficult topics,here and here.

Your Turn!

And now it’s your turn. What rules for effective storytelling would you add to this list?

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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