How to tell a great story (incl. 5 brilliant examples)
Updated: Oct 28
When my clients want to hire marketers, they often ask me what should be the most critical skill. I answer with a new question: what are your favourite childhood memories? Bedtime stories always make it to the top of the list (hint for parents: tell bedtime stories to your children and open a magical world you won't ever find on smartphone and tablet screens). Whether you need an online copywriter, a social media wizard, a campaign manager or an advertising creative; there is one skill that outperforms all the rest: storytelling.
But can you learn storytelling? Yes, you can. However, you will need a lot of practice and talent to stand out.
Start with reading.
Reading is an indispensable tool in your storytelling toolkit. Books are not only a great source of inspiration; ultimately reading will help to develop story comprehension. That counts as well for storytelling in movies, theatre, music and any other art form. The more you read, watch and listen, the more stories you absorb, and the better you become in mastering storytelling yourself.
Avoid the typical pitfall.
When teaching strategic marketing, I ask the students why superheroes wear capes. "Because they need to fly?" or "It's like an unwritten code in the superhero universe?". No. It's because we expect them to wear a cape. I am sure you can name at least one superhero that doesn't do capes. The same goes up for marketing. Don't tell a story because people expect you to do. Tell a story because you need to say something, you want to change something, and you are passionate about it.
Think about emotion.
You feel a need to share your story with the world. Here is an important lesson: storytelling is emotionally driven, not rationally. Otherwise, Alice would never be able to shrink, and she would never be able to enter the Wonderland.
The basics of storytelling.
If you're making up a story, remember every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. And it should have a conflict and a resolution. Need help? Consider the folk tale. Do you remember The Tortoise and the Hare, one of Aesop's Fables?
The hare is very confident of winning, so it stops during the race and falls asleep. The tortoise continues to move very slowly but without stopping, and finally, it beats the hare. The moral lesson of the story is that you can be more successful by doing things slowly and steadily than by acting quickly and carelessly.
Beginning, middle and end? Check. Conflict and resolution? Check. Do you know the best part? The protagonists aren't animals; they are real people. We visualise the characters and identify with them!
How does it work in Marketing?
Storytelling marketing means using a narrative to communicate a message. The aim is to make the viewer feel something – enough that it will inspire them to take action. Storytelling in marketing helps consumers to understand why they should care about something, and it works to humanise your brand.
Let's get a better understanding by showing some storytelling examples from the best. Enjoy these five masterpieces.
"This Is Why" by Cossette Toronto for SickKids Foundation (musical)
Canada's SickKids hospital faced with a massive goal of raising $1.3 billion to build a replacement for the ageing facility, which is cramped, dated and in need of repair. With this goal in mind, the SickKids Foundation created a musical storytelling campaign featuring a sick child singing a modified rendition of Nine Inch Nails "Hurt" as viewers tour the hospital. The tour of the hospital offers viewers an inside look at the realities that SickKids patients, families, and staff face daily.
"Détour" by Michel Gondry for Apple (film)
'Détour' tells the story of a child's tricycle that gets lost and its adventure-filled journey of being reunited with its young owner. Director Michel Gondry, famous for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and countless music videos for The White Stripes and Bjork, has directed an 11 minute short for Apple. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone 7.
"Unlimit Yourself" by Ogilvy UK for Vodafone (dance/choreography)
The telecoms brand partnered with Ogilvy UK to create a choreographed dance performed by a woman and more than 25 of her lookalikes. All the women are wearing the brand's signature shade of red but in different outfits, and the story tells of the "unlimited" sides to the multifaceted protagonist.
"Eva Stories" by high tech billionaire Mati Kochavi and his daughter Maya (Instagram)
An Instagram account that recounts the real-life story of a Jewish girl murdered in a concentration camp, by imagining she had documented her days on a smartphone. With 1.1 million followers, Eva.Stories is a high-budget visual depiction of the diary of Eva Heyman – a 13-year-old Hungarian who chronicled the 1944 German invasion of Hungary – but features hashtags, internet slang, and emojis used by a 21st century-teenager.
This example is a controversial one. Yet the vast number of followers of Eva.Stories have no doubt brought attention to a part of history that many young people know little about, especially as the number of ageing Holocaust survivors shrinks.
"How Warby Parker Glasses Are Made" by Ogilvy UK for Warby Parker (video)
Warby Parker is an American eyewear brand. In their storytelling video, they don't focus on showing just their products; instead, they feature their culture, people and values. In the video How Warby Parker Glasses Are Made, they explain the step-by-step process of creating a glass right from the cutting of the lenses. People can understand the exact process and hard work that goes into preparing a glass and why their product is the best. Not only that, but we get to learn their story, such as the fact that for every pair of glasses sold, they donate a pair to someone in need.
Even though we have got more tech at our disposal than ever before, the power of a simple story holds firm. However you choose to tell stories, as long as you spin a good yarn – with compelling characters, an intriguing plot and plenty of emotion – you will keep your audience captivated.
So while I can't promise that you will live happily ever after, you can introduce a little creativity into a challenging marketing project—the end.
PS: Allow me to promote another excellent example of storytelling for marketing reasons. "John - Life is worth fighting for" is a graphic novel from my friend doctor Luc Colemont and comic artist Mario Boon. The story raises colon cancer awareness around the globe (translated into several major languages). A great story can save lives. How cool is that? And you can save lives as well. Buy your copy here.