No process, method or technique. Storytelling is described as an art … the “art” of storytelling.
And – like art – it takes creativity, vision, skill and practice. Storytelling cannot be understood in a post-class session. It is a trial and error process of mastering.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Rightly so, because storytelling has become a crucial part of the most successful marketing campaigns. It differentiates vibrant brands from simple businesses and loyal consumers from one-time buyers.
It’s also at the heart of inbound marketing.
Storytelling is an incredibly valuable tool to add to your proverbial marketing tool belt. That’s why we created this guide so you can discover and master storytelling and tell beautiful, compelling stories for your audience.
Take your pen and let’s dive in.
What is storytelling?
Storytelling uses facts and narration to convey something to your audience. Some stories are factual, others are embellished or improvised to better explain the core message.
While this definition is pretty specific, stories actually resemble a wide variety of things. This graphic by ReferralCandy helps outline what stories are and what aren’t.
Storytelling is an art form that is as old as time and has a place in every culture and society. Why? Because stories are a universal language that anyone – regardless of dialect, hometown or heritage – can understand. Stories stimulate imagination and passion and create a sense of community between the listener and the narrator.
Telling a story is like painting a picture with words. While anyone can tell a story, certain people optimize their storytelling skills and become storytellers on behalf of their organization, brand, or business. You may have heard of these people – we usually refer to them as marketers, content writers, or public relations professionals.
Every member of an organization can tell a story. Before we get into the how, however, let’s talk about why we tell stories – as a society, culture, and economy.
Why do we tell stories?
There are several reasons to tell stories – to sell, to entertain, to educate, or to brag about. We’ll talk about this below. For now, I’d like to discuss why we prefer storytelling to, for example, a data-driven powerpoint or a bulleted list. Why are stories our preferred way of sharing, explaining, and selling information?
Stories consolidate abstract concepts and simplify complex messages.
We were all confused trying to figure out a new idea. Stories provide a way around that. Think of times when stories helped you understand a concept better. Perhaps a teacher explained a math problem using a real-life example, a preacher presented a situation during a sermon, or a speaker used a case study to convey complex data.
Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages. Taking a tall, intangible concept and relating it to concrete ideas is one of the greatest strengths of storytelling in business.
Take Apple, for example. Computers and smartphones are a pretty complicated subject to describe to your typical consumer. Using real life stories, they were able to describe exactly how their products would benefit users rather than relying on jargon that very few customers would understand.
Stories bring people together.
As I said above, stories are a kind of universal language. We all understand the story of the hero, the outsider, or the heartbreak. We all process emotions and can share feelings of elation, hope, despair, and anger. Sharing a story gives even the most diverse people a sense of togetherness and community.
In a world divided by a multitude of things, stories bring people together and create a sense of community. Despite our language, religion, political preferences, or ethnicity, stories connect us through the way we feel and respond to them. Stories make us human.
TOMS is a good example of this. By sharing customer stories and the people they serve through customer purchases, TOMS has effectively created a movement that not only increased sales but also built a community.
Stories inspire and motivate.
Stories make us human, and that goes for brands too. When brands become transparent and authentic, they are brought to the ground and consumers can connect with them and the people behind them.
Using people’s emotions and exposing both the good and the bad, stories inspire and motivate … and ultimately drive the action forward. Stories also encourage brand loyalty. When you create a narrative about your brand or product, it not only humanizes it, but it is also marketed naturally.
Few brands use inspiration as a sales tactic, but ModCloth does that well. By sharing the true story of its founder, ModCloth not only makes the brand relatable and worth buying, but also inspires other founders and business owners.
What makes a good story?
Words like “good” and “bad” relate to the user’s opinion. However, there are some non-negotiable components that make for a great storytelling experience for both the reader and the narrator.
Good stories are …
- Entertaining:: Good stories keep the reader busy and interested in what’s next.
- Instructive:: Good stories arouse curiosity and expand the reader’s knowledge base.
- Universal:: Good stories are understandable for all readers and use emotions and experiences that most people have.
- Organized: Good stories follow a concise organization that conveys the core message and helps readers take it in.
- Unforgettable:: Whether through inspiration, scandal or humor, good stories stay in the reader’s mind.
According to the HubSpot Academy’s free Power of Storytelling course, there are three components that make up a good story – regardless of the story you want to tell.
- characters. Every story contains at least one character, and that character is key to getting your audience back in touch with the story. This component is the bridge between you, the storyteller, and the audience. If your audience can put themselves in your character’s shoes, they will be more likely to heed your call to action.
- conflict. Conflict is the lesson of how the character overcomes a challenge. Conflicts in your story trigger emotions and connect the audience through relatable experiences. When you tell stories, the power lies in what you convey and teach. If there is no conflict in your story, it is likely not a story.
- resolution. Every good story has an ending, but it doesn’t always have to be a good one. Resolving your story should complete the story, provide context for the characters and conflicts, and give your audience a call to action.
Now that you know what to include in your story, let’s talk about how to create your story.
The narrative process
We have confirmed that storytelling is an art. Like art, storytelling requires creativity, vision, and skill. It also takes practice. Enter: The process of storytelling.
Painters, sculptors, draftsmen and potters follow their own creative process in the production of their art. It helps them know where to start, how to develop their vision, and how to perfect their practice over time. The same goes for storytelling … especially for companies that write stories.
Why is this process important? Because as an organization or brand, you likely have a ton of facts, figures, and messages to convey in a short story. How do you know where to start? Start with the first step. After that, you’ll know where to go (and how to get there).
1. Know your audience.
Who wants to hear your story Who will benefit and respond most to it? To create a compelling story, you need to understand your readers and know who is responding to them and taking action.
Before putting a pen on paper (or a cursor on a word processor), do some research on your target market and define your buyer personality (s). Through this process, you will get to know who might be reading, viewing, or hearing your story. It will also provide crucial direction for next steps as you build the foundation of your story.
2. Define your core message.
Whether your story is a page or twenty, ten minutes or sixty, it should have a key message in it. Like the foundation of a house, it must be built before moving forward.
Is your story selling a product or raising money? Explain a service or stand up for a problem? What’s the point of your story? To define this, try to summarize your story in six to ten words. If you can’t do this, you don’t have a core message.
3. Decide what kind of story to tell.
Not all stories are created equal. To determine what type of story you are telling, you need to figure out how you want your audience to feel or react as they read it.
That way, you can determine how you weave your story and what your goal is. If your goal is …
- … Stimulate actionYour story should describe how a successful action was completed in the past and explain how readers may be able to implement the same type of change. Avoid excessive, exaggerated detail or subject changes so your audience can focus on the action or change that is promoting your story.
- … tell people about yourselfTell a story that shows real, humanizing struggles, failures, and victories. Today’s consumer values and associates brands that market with authenticity and storytelling is no exception.
- … communicate values, tell a story using familiar emotions, characters, and situations so readers understand how the story applies to their own lives. This is especially important when discussing values that some people may disagree with or that they do not understand.
- … Promote community or collaboration, tell a story that will encourage readers to discuss your story and share it with others. Use a situation or experience that others can relate to and say, “Me too!” Keep situations and characters neutral to attract a wide variety of readers.
- … Imparting or educating knowledgeUse a trial and error experience to tell a story so readers learn more about a problem and how a solution was discovered and applied. Discuss other alternative solutions as well.
4. Set up your call to action.
Your goal and call-to-action (CTA) are similar, but your CTA defines the action you want your audience to take after reading it.
What exactly should your readers do after reading it? Would you like them to donate money, subscribe to a newsletter, take a course, or buy a product? Outline this along with your goal to make sure they match.
For example, if your goal is to encourage community or collaboration, your CTA might be to tap the Share button below.
5. Choose your story medium.
Stories can take many forms. Some stories are read, others seen, and others heard. The story medium you choose depends on your type of story and resources such as time and money.
Here are the different ways you can tell your story.
- A written story is told through articles, blog posts or books. These are mainly text and may contain some images. Written stories are by far the most affordable and accessible method of storytelling, as all it takes is a free word processor like Google Docs or pen and paper.
- A spoken story is told personally, like a presentation, a pitch or a panel. TED conversations are considered spoken stories. Because of their “living,” unprocessed nature, spoken stories usually require more practice and skill to convey messages and evoke emotions in others.
- An audio story spoken aloud but recorded – this is what distinguishes it from spoken history. Audio stories are usually in podcast form. With today’s technology, creating an audio story is cheaper than ever. (You can find a great story podcast on The Growth Show!)
- A digital story is narrated through a variety of media including video, animation, interactive stories, and even games. This option is by far the most effective for emotionally resonant stories as well as active, visual stories. That is why it is also the most expensive. But don’t fret: video quality is less important than conveying a strong message.
Now is the time to get pen on paper and start creating your story.
With that core message, audience target, and call-to-action, this step is all about adding detail and creative flair to your story. Read about our storytelling formula to help you with this step.
7. Share your story.
Don’t forget to share and promote your story! As with any content, creating is only half the battle – sharing is another.
Depending on your chosen medium, you should definitely share your story on social media and via email. In addition, written stories can be promoted on your blog, medium, or through guest posts in other publications. Digital stories can be shared on YouTube and Vimeo. While spoken stories are best delivered in person, consider recording a live performance to share later.
The more places you share your story, the more engagement you can expect from your audience.
Storytelling is a trial-and-error process, and no one tells a story perfectly on the first try. That’s why we’ve put these resources together to help you fine-tune your storytelling skills and learn about the different ways a story can be told.
For a written story
For a spoken story
For an audio story
For the digital story
Over to you
Storytelling is an art. It’s also a process that you should master for both your business and your customers. Stories bring people together and inspire actions and reactions. Also, today’s consumer doesn’t choose to buy based on what you’re selling, but rather why you’re selling it.
Storytelling helps you communicate the “why” in a creative and engaging way. Isn’t storytelling more fun?