Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
You might have played with Play-Doh as a child, or maybe your children play with it now. Its inventors didn’t create it for that purpose though; it was originally made to be a wallpaper cleaner back in the days when home heating relied on burning coal. When gas-fired heating was introduced and internal walls were no longer covered in soot, a school-teacher relative of the inventor suggested he turn it into a toy instead. The result is the brightly coloured, almond-scented Play-Doh that is a staple in millions of homes to this day.
Next time you see a child playing with Play-Doh, you’ll probably remember that story. People have been telling stories for centuries, and for good reason. Stories turn facts or fiction into a digestible form. They have a recognisable shape; the reader or listener knows they will start in one place and be taken on a journey to another – the perfect package in which to wrap the ideas you want to get across. From a young age stories entertain and help us make sense of the world; they inspire and transport us, and they are often vehicles for truths and rules of life that would be harder to absorb in another form. As we get older many of us retreat into stories on the page or screen, and gossip is universal. Indeed, research has found that 65% of our conversations are made up of personal stories.
At Tapestry, storytelling is central to our work. Below we share with you our top ingredients for stories that make people sit up and listen, whether you’re creating an ad campaign, connecting with people on social media, writing a report or blog, or delivering a presentation.
The shape of your story will depend on how much emphasis you want to give each part of it, but in time-honoured tradition, do make sure it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Novelists often think in terms of three acts:
- The Setup
- The Confrontation
- The Resolution
In a classic washing powder advert this would be:
- Children play in the mud with abandon
- Ingrained and hard-to-shift dirt on their clothes results in exasperated mother
- Washing powder with barely believable stain-removing properties comes to the rescue.
This structure guide works for anything, though. There is always an existing situation (your customers are in the market for entertainment or a product), something that needs tackling (how to find a gripping TV programme about climate change or car maintenance; what to do about stains on your walls) and a solution (e.g. our TV network caters for a diverse range of interests; raid your children’s Play-Doh box).
Obviously you need some content. But including the right content can be harder than it might seem.
A compelling and memorable story needs to be relevant. This means choosing the content that will answer your client’s business problem, or chime with the emotions that motivate your audience. For this you need to know your target. What will make them cry (in a good way), what will put perspective on their strategy? For several Christmases now John Lewis has employed masters of content for their seasonal adverts – people who know giving is more powerful than receiving, that a child’s-eye view of Christmas always works, and that a heart-melting twist at the end of the story is a winner.
Consider what will resonate with your audience and which pieces of content will move the story forward. Start by asking yourself: if I had to tell my story in one sentence, what would that be? There’s your headline. If I had a paragraph? There are your key points. Flesh out your themes until you have your presentation/blog/social media post. But don’t make the mistake of chucking everything you know into the mix, hoping it will look like you have done more work. It takes more time to whittle down your material, but it makes a more compelling case. As Mark Twain once said in a letter, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.’
Once you have your content, consider how you will impart it. Back to knowing your audience. A chatty tone can still work even if the content is serious, and most people respond well to humour. If your story is closely bound up with a brand personality, you will certainly need to infuse that into the story.
Be descriptive. Description brings stories alive. Think about that Play-Doh described above: don’t tell me you couldn’t smell it or visualise its lurid colours. Neurological research has found that when we read descriptive details, our brains are stimulated in a way that makes us feel as if we are living the scenario rather than just reading about it; we can smell, feel movement, imagine texture. This builds a story in our head that we can grasp, and crucially, remember at a later date.
Another way to ensure engagement and memorability is by using visuals. Use video, use infographics. Visuals bring your story to life by creating a cognitive reaction that helps attach meaning to facts, and which moves people to action. It’s why Comic Relief and Children In Need broadcasts are interspersed with videos of the situations that require your money.
Throughout your story, but especially at the end, your audience needs to feel sure they know what it all means. Good stories don’t just present the facts and figures and then ask their audience to go and draw their own conclusions. You need to include ‘so what?’ moments along the way, telling the audience how they should act on what they’ve heard. In an advert, this will be making sure that you weave into it why the answer to the story is that particular brand – shaping the story’s narrative in such a way that it reflects the audience’s needs and provides fulfilment for them. In social media, it might be how the audience can join in the conversation and feel part of the brand or story.
As the film writer and director Jean Luc Godard said, ‘sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.’ So, contrary to what your teachers and parents might have told you, you should definitely tell tales.