Want a future in marketing? Learn how to tell a story


“Telling the story” has become a cliche in marketing recently, but once you get past the empty buzzwords and think about what it really means, you realize that it’s the essence of successful communication.

Storytelling isn’t necessarily about imagination or even creativity. It’s about organized thought and purposeful communication. And it feels like more and more people are pretty bad at it these days.

In preliterate times, storytellers were revered for their ability to retain and share encyclopedic amounts of information. Today, we overshare a lot of fragmented and banal information with each other, without a plot or purpose other than “staying connected”.

Although it predates the social media era, this scene (new window) from one of my favourite movies has a perfect rant for the current state of popular communication delivered by Neal (Steve Martin) to Del (John Candy):

Didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some clue that this guy’s not enjoying it? Everything’s not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting.

You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that. They’re not even amusing accidentally.

“Honey, meet Del Griffith. He’s got some amusing anecdotes.Here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it.”

I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days, I could listen to them go on and on.
They’d say, “How can you stand it?” And I’d say, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.”

You know what they’d say? “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy.”

It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. There should be a string on your chest that I pull out. Except I wouldn’t pull it out, you would. Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!

By the way, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: Have a point.
It makes it more interesting for the listener!

Funny? Oh, yes. Cruel? You bet! But it’s also a big bucket of wisdom for communicators.

Think about it: When you are communicating with your audiences, do you have a point? Are your ads, your posts, and your content “funny or mildly amusing or interesting”? Or are you indiscriminate?

In the movie, Del’s golden character gradually reveals itself, but that’s only because he and Neal are constantly forced together by fate. Your audience, if they’re lucky, is not in the same situation.

While people will put up with a great deal of useless communication from their friends and family, they will not tolerate it from some brand. For that reason alone, all marketing-oriented communicators have to be superior story-tellers who can earn the attention of strangers.

So how do good storytellers communicate? They start by having a single point to get across. It may be the moral of the story, or a lesson, a punchline or a comparison to provide useful context for the conversation as a whole. But it is always a single idea that serves as a destination for the story.

This destination is the audience takeaway. The sole purpose of the story is to make them pay attention to it and remember it. Getting there may be half the fun, but the trip should be short as well as interesting, with no boring detours. (Hell, even interesting detours — like shock advertising — can be dead ends if they’re on the wrong track.)

It is human nature to wander off into all kinds of tangents and get lost. Good storytellers keep things moving, and keep the scenery along the way interesting, but don’t lose focus.

It reminds me of a time when I was driving through Tuscany, at night, during a rainstorm, and suddenly ran over so many migrating white toads that the car almost went off the…

You see? That was pretentious, gross and uncalled for. (True story, though.) That’s exactly what many communications do when they tell the audience what the marketing people want them to believe about the brand rather than what the audience wants to hear. If you don’t tell a good story, you’ll be the one who gets ditched.


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