Humans have always told stories. We do so because it’s such a powerful way of connecting with others, eliciting their empathy and bringing (or keeping) them “on side”.
It works for brands too, for the same reasons, but the rise of digital media is changing the way brands tell stories, because in this day and age – more than ever before – time is of the essence.
If you don’t get your message across quickly, it will be lost among the deluge of other information coming at your customers from a wide variety of channels. We all have to filter.
So, how do we use narrative techniques to good effect in this world that is over-stuffed with information?
The best storytellers have always told a compelling tale, and one of the easiest ways of doing this is to follow the journalistic rule that you tell the most important, or most shocking, part of the story first. This is great for media releases, but what if you don’t want to give the game away immediately?
It sounds obvious, but ...
It sounds obvious, but it is really important that before you design a graphic, storyboard a video or even write a tweet, you know what the punchline – the final words (or action) – will be, and why.
Knowing the goal or purpose of any story will give a framework to the telling of it. Think of it like this: when you watch a movie that has you on the edge of your seat, you see the characters doing ordinary things – driving a car, walking to work, talking to an enemy. What they are doing is so full of meaning because of why they are doing it. Knowing why informs the what, and the how.
It’s also important to know the overall goal of the company (brand) you are working for. Not what it does, what it believes – why it does what it does. This knowledge will create a thread throughout all the actions it takes, including its marketing.
Once you know the reason, creating a story, whether it is a tweet, a video or a website, will be much easier, and your work will be more compelling, because actions that have purpose are filled with underlying tension about whether their goal will be reached.
And the golden rule is ...
And here’s the golden rule of tension, thanks to film director Matt Livadary: the longer you can withhold paying off your tension without dissatisfying your audience, the more engaged in your story that audience will be.
You can feed the tension, too, by giving your audience snippets of information so that you string them along without giving the game away. There are several ways of doing this.
The “jack-in-the-box effect” is often used by listicle writers, e.g. “Here are the five ways to show your love. Number four will surprise you.” But one of the easiest ways to create and maintain tension is to raise a hope, expectation or doubt in your audience’s collective mind.
Remember how we all felt when the Boks ran out onto the field to meet England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final? The tension was maintained by all three emotions: hope, expectation and doubt. We knew the Springboks could beat England. We expected them to beat England. But, you never can tell … and so, would they actually beat England?
In fact, there was something else in there, too – anticipation, the expectation that something will happen. That’s why major sports events are so often compelling stories. Plus, they come pre-packaged with that other important element of storytelling: opponents. Having opponents always creates tension, and tension is manna to storytellers.
Marketers can also use the ticking-clock effect with great results. It’s that race against time that is so effectively (and sometimes ludicrously) used in the James Bond movies. If time, or some other element related to an offer, is limited, interest is piqued.
When you have your story ready, remember that music (or silence) and colour all help to create atmosphere.
Finally, it’s crucial to remember when crafting a story or message to know your audience, and to know where they are when you engage them (the medium). Build your message to suit the audience and the medium.