Simple Things Storytellers Do

Published: November 18, 2016 / No Comments

Storytelling with a capital “S” can be a bit intimidating. Every day businesses are urged to use more storytelling, but sometimes it feels like a huge project with pressure to completely re-do everything.

It turns out that pro storytellers apply some of the same core techniques regardless of project size. Whether you are planning a complete brand update, or seeking to improve how you communicate the great brand you’ve already got, here are some fundamental story techniques the pros use every day, and you can too.

Storytelling on your website

Website development is a lot like marriage; it involves a lot of compromise. The marketing team wants emotional resonance; the sales team wants product detail; the UX folks want it streamlined; the data teams want SEO; I.T. is in a huff about security… the list goes on and on. The storyteller’s task is to address these competing, legitimate demands and tell a coherent story too.

One helpful way to handle this challenge is to remember that you don’t have to tell the whole story on every page. Instead, think of it like this: Each page on your website has one high level “job” to do. It may have other jobs as well, but the story of that page should focus on the highest-level purpose.

I’m a huge fan of No Kid Hungry, so let’s look at their site. The home page needs to share the mission, invite donations, promote the current campaign, and include a key partner, among other things. But the STORY is that kids in our communities have empty plates.

No Kid hungry home page

This homepage tells the high level story.

This page works because the focus is razor-sharp: hungry kids. You may look at this and think, “That’s so obvious!” but trust me, this kind of clean focus is really hard.

Storytelling with language

Words are powerful. So every word you write has the responsibility to express something important about your brand story. That’s why writing good copy is so hard. Pros don’t just write clear sentences; they make every single word on the page advance the larger story.

Take the product description here as an example. It’s extraordinarily simple.

Kashi Cereal stoytelling on a box

Photo credit: Kashi. Emphasis on kissed added. 

Kashi whole grain corn is kissed with molasses. Notice that word choice, “kissed”? It’s not flavored with molasses. It’s not made with molasses. It’s kissed with molasses.

Can you feel the difference? Think about it. Who kisses you in the morning?  Your mom! Or maybe your partner. Or your kids. The point is that this one word tells you that Kashi is a story of family and love. I feel good already!

Now take a look at the copy on your own website, or social post, or other asset. Can you find just one word that you can update to tell a better story? Most likely, you can.

Storytelling with images

Everyone knows that images can be powerful, but not all images are equally so.

Too many companies make the mistake of using an image that is literal. This is particularly true for technology companies, who frequently include screenshots on the homepage. You don’t have to show exactly what the product does! You do have to show how the product makes you feel. That feeling is your story.

Apple did this with its iconic iPod ads, and the result was absolute domination of the category.

Apple ipod original ad story

This image works because it shows how the product makes you feel. Photo credit: Apple Inc.

Particularly when you have very little room for copy, a single image can do a lot to tell your story. The key is to focus on the emotion behind the image rather than the image itself.

Storytelling offline

Digital assets are great because they are so flexible, but real world environments offer great story opportunities too. One of my favorite story-in-the-real-world examples was developed by a Chicago-area Domino’s franchisee, Ramon DeLeon, way back in 2010.

Ramon wanted to show his customers that he would do anything it took to make them happy. His tool of choice was Twitter. If you had a problem, you could tweet Ramon and get it solved immediately. No middle-man, no phone calls where you risked being put on hold by a busy pizza shop. He owned responsibility for your experience, good or bad.

So Ramon printed his own Twitter handle on every box along with snippets of Twitter conversations with customers. Whenever you needed help Ramon was at the ready, and the proof was right there on the pizza boxes. Customers loved it.

Twitter story on a pizza box with Ramon WOW

You’re Never Alone with @Ramon_Deleon. “The Pizza Guy to Know in Downtown Chicago.”

Importantly, Ramon always respected the overall Domino’s brand story. At the time, Domino’s promised your pizza in 30 minutes or less, or your money back. So Ramon’s store-level brand story was right in tune with the overall company commitment to customer satisfaction.

I love this example because it expands our idea of what storytelling is well beyond the standard “viral” video. We have so many opportunities to look for and express individual stories, and do it even when working within the context of a larger brand.

One last thing

Storytelling can be used in ways big and small, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Indeed, the closer you are to it, the tougher it is. But pros start by breaking it down into specific components such as language, images and objectives, and you can too.

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