Building memorable, brand relevant stories can seem daunting. We often rely on classical marketing rhetoric (facts & figures) to sidestep storytelling by way of informational value. The hard truth is that among younger generations, there's common disdain for traditional marketing content. While among all generations, the science is clear. Storytelling creates memories far more efficiently than informational persuasion. By understanding the basic formula for telling stories, the intricacies that turn your video into a memory, we can build a recipe for designing and writing effective stories at scale.
We are naturally inclined to doubt marketing rhetoric. This distrust has consciously changed the way we interact with marketing experiences, first-hand. We’ve naturally developed an advertising avoidance when navigating webpages called “Banner Blindness”, and that’s only if the target market isn’t using one of the 380 million devices with an ad-blocker. Subscription Video On-Demand is dominating the entertainment industry, yet companies that stick to conventional, disruptive advertising like Hulu are failing. People will pay more money for less advertisements, period. Nevertheless, despite an open dialogue about the nature of advertising, consumers are still often fooled.
For example, in a study by Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely, two groups of consumers were told to evaluate the price of a stereo system. When they were read the description from Consumer Reports, they were willing to pay twice as much as those that were read the same text, guised as a manufacturing brochure. This kind of advertising in sheep’s clothing is an example of our disinterest at even the thought of marketing rhetoric.
In business-to-business, there’s a natural tendency to list product features, how they differentiate from competitors, and how those features make an impact on businesses. This is the way we’ve all been conditioned to make a rhetorical argument; every college essay and research paper are framed a certain way. You might not call your brand message a thesis statement but it can often come across that way. And even though the solutions your content illustrates might be relevant and factual, it still doesn’t make the source (your company) trustworthy, nor does it make the information memorable.
“At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him.” - Bill Bernbach
We can break through to our audience not by marketing our product but by upholding the nature of our customers, broadcasting the hardships of the lives they lead, and disseminating their stories. In essence, storytelling.
What is a story?
Good storytelling can be defined in a single sentence:
When conflict changes life.
Every story follows the same structure. Conflict creates decisions, decisions create positive or negative outcomes, the story and characters have changed (or haven't) based on those outcomes. In a nutshell, that’s all there is to it. It's the way I write copy, it's the way I write screenplays.
We have become accustomed to this storytelling structure because the emotional imbalances are releasing pleasure giving chemicals in the brain. Our bodies secrete dopamine during any emotional event, pain or pleasure, even when that emotion is vicarious. It’s no wonder we project stories into every aspect of our lives. That’s why gossip is contagious or why we root for the underdog. Its why movies are a $43 billion-dollar industry. When we evaluate stocks, a large influence for investors is understanding the story of a company, what conflicts it has faced, how it adapted, and what the possibilities are. We even create conspiracy theories from fallacies because the story with more conflicts is naturally more appealing. In recent years, social media has become the platform for telling our own stories; A visualization of who we are as individuals. Social media users have become dopamine-driven storytellers. Mediums like YouTube are dealing stories like a neighborhood drug dealer.
We have become literally addicted to stories.
Why do stories help video marketing?
An area of the brain, Broadman Area 10, is responsible for reasoning, problem solving, choice making, and action planning. While these functions are not exclusive to this part of the brain, BA10 is also responsible for memory recall. BA10, when stimulated with any sort of choice or conflict, will enter what is called “retrieval mode”; to call upon relevant memories for help solving any given problem. It then creates a new memory, a to-do task stored for later - what’s called “prospective memory”. We are constantly preforming this cycle, especially in a work environment, and many of those prospective memories form into goals and desires. And in some cases, we lose track of a task and are reprimanded, often when we have a lot of duties to remember.
BA10 is the part of the brain managing all these tasks cumulatively, tasks and sub tasks, and somehow manages to assess a multitude of incoming tasks. When someone feels like their current task doesn’t need solving, that’s when the mind starts to wander, we go back to daydreaming, those sub tasks are refocused to the forefront of our attention.
When that someone sits down to watch a video, assuming they are the ones that click play, they have then given themselves a task: watch this video. All of the other tasks have now become sub-tasks until otherwise attention shifts. For a fleeting moment you actually have someone’s attention. Question remains, how long can you keep their attention?
You need feed the viewer with new tasks, inundate them with choices and conflict.
You need to keep them in “retrieval mode” by stimulating relevant personal memories.
You need to falsify new prospective memories that will support your marketing strategy, producing either an effective call to action or fortifying a new industry outlook.
Where do I start?
First, it’s important to define your message. The same usual questions apply:
What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
Who is my target audience?
What information do I want to present?
What parts of the product do we want to emphasise?
What use-case might apply?
When you’ve got a good grasp on what you want to say, it’s time to create your conflict statement.
Now, you might be thinking, conflict? My product/services shouldn’t be associated with any negative values— or at least be negative values that support the need of my product.
This is what’s called negaphobia: the misinterpretation of realism for negativity. Part of traditional marketing rhetoric is that negative images or feelings will become connected to the company’s brand image. This is ad hominem. This assumption assumes that people are not logical enough to differentiate between a realistic interpretation and negative outlook. A conflict statement utilizes the seemingly “negative” aspects of your message and uses them to your advantage.
Conflict propels a story. So, ask yourself, what propels the message you want to tell?
What fears and desires are common among my target audience?
What challenges does the target face on a regular basis?
What situations are common in the industry/environment they work in?
What kind of identity describes your target audience?
Who might they see as an enemy/competitor?
How can we portray our target audience in a single character or object?
Once you have a distinct idea as to the nuances of your target audience, you are ready to combine them with your original message. The format usually goes something like this:
[Target Audience] is an [identity] looking for [desire] in [relevant setting/situation]. When [target audience] is confronted with [fear] they must face [regular challenge(s), antagonists]with [product messaging] in order to become [visualization of desire & brand messaging].
This isn’t a be-all-end-all solution to storytelling, the Conflict Statement will be your guide to telling better stories. If you keep simplifying this statement, you'll find something of intrinsic value.
How do I tell stories?
According to the Journal of Consumer Research, “Sympathy and Empathy: Emotional Responses to Advertising Dramas”, when studying audiences of dramatized advertising, sympathy mediates empathy. Here’s how we can hook our viewers with better stories.
Step 1: Identification
Sympathy is the act of connection/relation to another person. In storytelling, when that person is the main character (protagonist), it’s called identification. The audience has let their guard down and have found something in the story they can relate to. It might be similarities to the office they work in, or the way someone dresses, or the nuances of an industry-relevant sales pitch. Identification at the beginning of your story keeps the viewers watching. Prospects aren’t going to identify with feigned authenticity, as amateur attempts to be relatable can be perceived as seduction or coercion.
Identification is the act of setting up a story with relevant and relatable characters/settings.
Step 2: The Cognitive Switch
Once your audience has identified with the story, it’s time for the most integral function of the storytelling process, the cognitive switch. In order to have the maximum emotional impact, you need the audience to feel that this story is his/her story. You want the viewer to assume the role of your story. You want the decisions and conflicts in the story to feel as if they are the viewers'. In order to do so, you need the conflict of the story to be relatable, a moment of empathetic value. If your story is a seller walking into a big pitch meeting, the nervousness in the waiting room beforehand can feel unnerving, we know the feeling. We can empathize with that character.
The cognitive switch is ensured when there’s an identity (person/thing) that the viewer can embrace as their own.
Step 3: The Inciting Incident
Early in your story there should be an incident, a moment in which the conflict of your story becomes evident. This could be before or after the cognitive switch, but it’s important in short-format content to make it apparent early. This conflict sets into motion the positive and negative values associated with your conflict statement.
The Inciting Incident should be like a light switch. internally, the viewer's brain should be considering: what would I do in that situation? What will this character/company do under these circumstances? Who am I in relation to this person/thing?
Step 4: The Dopamine Journey
Once we pass the hurdle of the inciting incident, it’s important to keep that conflict alive. You don’t need "a roller coaster of emotions", but the conflict shouldn’t feel resolved for a bulk of the video. It might get progressively better like a Rocky montage, but don’t give your viewer the satisfaction of resolution, not yet. You want the viewer to stay engaged with emotional charges of positive and negative outcomes.
Think of the dopamine journey like the back-and-fourth of a debate. Each side is objective and unwavering. If you try to sugarcoat negative values, it will sound like a fixed debate. If you lean too negative, it will feel pessimistic.
Step 5: The Crisis Choice
This is what is often called the “climax”, which is for the most part, a reiteration of the inciting incident on a (usually) larger scale. The audience is riding this wave of positive and negative moments along the dopamine journey, they are hit with resolution. They are fully connected with their newfound identity and have followed your journey with heightened engagement. You've set yourself up for success. You just need to nail one last moment—
How do I visualize the resolve of my conflict statement?
The crisis choice is the moment that the story's central identity must resolve the conflict. Give your audience the satisfaction of an answer to the story at hand.
Step 6: The Open-Mind Moment
When the dopamine filled positive and negative journey ends, when the viewer is finally brought to resolution. They feel complete. This is where you hit them with your brand message. Leave them with an image they can associate with this feeling.
And if done correctly, they should walk away with new questions; questions about themselves. Those questions will hopefully become prospective memories— memories attached to your brand and your product. This is what conventional marketing has termed "The Call to Action".
Let’s do an example:
My friend works as a recruiter for a travel nurse staffing company and he says one of the deciding factors for converting salaried nurses to travel nurses is leaving their family. How are we going to convince people to leave their families?
Let’s make an advertisement about a travel nurse that says goodbye to her family before assisting in a 3rd world country. She says goodbye to her family in the driveway of her suburban home, she lingers as she hugs her child. Only a few seconds in, we are driven to consider the choice she has made. We call upon memories of our own family, we consider the condition of an impoverished nation. We consider that feeling of being passionate about something. The choice the character makes might be hard, so we become interested in how the situation will play out. Nurses might feel empowered by the choice, they might make connections to their own fears and desires. If we play on that conflict
In a business-to-business, the conflicts aren’t always so existential. However, the nature of our respective businesses are not without fears and desires, never without conflicts. We can use those to our advantage. But it’s important to be cognizant and methodical when we tell them.
Good stories will utilize conflict appropriately, but the best stories are relatable in a way that can make the viewer take action.
Let’s do another:
Let’s design a video for a customer service solution, call them Company X. They want an industry specific video that caters to the tech industry.
Here’s the way we used to do videos:
Company X introduces you to some of their customer service reps, they are well spoken people that seem likeable and friendly. We delve into the solutions they provide. Company X has a large workforce located in Canada with timely, knowledgeable call centers and are capable of handling all sorts of external data. They even deliver that data on a personalized portal, every tweet and article about your company is accessible on one platform. The cost efficiency of the solution is unmatched in the industry, and it allows your company to focus on what matters, the customers. That’s why Company X boasts a 98% retention rate.
Let’s storify this:
We open on a Tech Company with terrible online reviews from customers about their customer support. Due to the nature of their business, it was hard for them to keep paying for manufacturing costs in the United States and also pay for quality customer service. The CEO wants to remain faithful to the quality of the product, and won’t give in to outsourcing his manufacturing to China. Sales is declining, and it forces Tech Company to raise their retail price. But their customers are still leaving. Spending late nights in his office, the CEO’s laptop malfuinctions, so he calls a customer support hotline. He is quickly connected with someone and strikes up an insightful conversation with the representative… one that actually improves his processing speed. When the CEO asks the representative who he works for, he says “Company X a customer service solution in Canada”. The CEO spends a few late nights on the phone, he researches more about Company X, he circles a number that says 98% retention rate. He signs some papers, seals them in a manila envelope and sends them in the mail.
Cut to: We are flooded with a stream of online reviews through the Company X portal, reviews that talk about how great the Tech Company product is, how helpful the customer support is and how it’s both affordable and efficient. A tweets pops up that grabs the CEO’s attention, “Outsourced manufacturing is a human rights violation. Tech Company is showing us we can change that.”
An overlay on the screen reads, “Company X. We help with what matters.”
This is what happens when you turn advertising into stories, you get a level of character and depth that goes beyond just your messaging. Storytelling can be formulaic and nobody has to know. Your secret is safe with me.