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People, plot and point: the 3 secrets to storytelling

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 @ 12:04 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

We keep reading about how effective traditional storytelling can be in content marketing. Yet, many attempts don’t get the promised results because they’re more chronology, fancy-dress curation or sales clap trap than story.

To help you better understand how to make your stories work, let’s look at some of the techniques employed in four examples: Kony 2012, the killing of Osama bin Laden, television crime dramas like Law and Order and Jon Morrow’s popular post, On Dying, Mothers and the Fighting for Your Ideas.

Despite their differences, they all:

  1. Star people the audience can strongly relate and react to
  2. Drive the plot with conflict
  3. Make a clear point

villains drive plotGood versus evil
What prompted more than 100 million excited views on Kony 2012? After a sermon on the clout of individual viewers through social media, director Jason Russell’s son Gavin hooked pretty much everyone.

Before viewers would strongly identify with the child victims, who are kidnapped and turned into soldiers and sex slaves, they needed to open their hearts to this adorable white American boy, who is just like our own children or friends’ children, possibly even a little cuter.

After we were introduced to a victim, Jacob. Because Jason stressed how much victim Jacob was like Gavin, audience members could not dismiss him as another African poster child.

While previous media coverage had focused on the Lord’s Resistance Army, Jason personified the evil through Joseph Kony. His image was relentlessly repeated and accompanied by the simple plea for action: Stop Kony. Bam!

Jason accomplished what Big Media could not, because he connected us to the atrocities, gave us victims we cared about and united us against a single, sinister villain. To be fair, of course, the journalists were reporting, not storytelling, though the line often blurs.

People just like us
When U.S. President Barack Obama told the story of the slaying of Osama bin Laden, he knew we already hated the villain.

So he focused first on audience identification, devoting most of his announcement to how the American people are still mourning the loss of loved ones in 9/11 or living in fear of another attack. The twists and turns of radar evasion, a helicopter crash, whispered meetings and tense faces in the situation room could wait.

The story continues to unfold, and likely will at least until the election, with more revelations about betrayals by trusted servants and wives. Hollywood could not tell it better, though no doubt it will try.

While content marketers don’t have blockbusters like this, they can pump up their stories by opening at the turning point and focusing on one hero and one villain. For longer campaigns, they can extend the narrative with plots that continue to roll, much like a spy novel or an ongoing soap opera.

Open with murder
Like the U.S. President’s announcement, the first scene of Law and Order and similar crime dramas is always the murder, the central conflict that will drive the rest of the story. We are engaged immediately by the horror, with just enough character development thrown in to make us care about the person who died and the grieving famly and friends

The Law and Order formula may work better for content marketers who lack the emotional pull of terrorists and their prey and have to grab the audience quickly.

In the absence of a compelling event, you may lose the people who grew up on fast-paced movies, television and video games. Lacking the patience to stick around, they may need to be hooked immediately and repeatedly reeled in.

Solve a problem
Instead of a murder, though, lead with a dire problem or conflict that sets up the point you want to make.
Jon Morrow’s poignant tale begins with the doctor delivering the bad news to his mother about his fatal disease.

Although there are villains, like the bureaucrats who don’t want him in a regular class or the people who won’t listen to his ideas, the spotlight is on Jon’s feisty, loving mother. When the villains aren’t rotten to the core, there’s more need to champion the hero.

Pitch your point
Watching his mother go to bat for him inspires Jon to fight for his ideas and become one of the most popular bloggers on the planet. His point, which he set up in his title and built through his story, can’t be missed. Neither can the fact that it relates to you.

Your point is to get people to respect you, sign up for your course or do something else. That’s the same as Jason Russell wanting us to stop Kony, Barack Obama defining his place in history, Law and Order gluing us to the tube and Jon Morrow inspiring you to take risks.

While you may not have as gripping a tale, you can develop a quick plot about a problem you solved, a pain you relieved or a life you touched. These stories probably involve people your audience can identify with, love or hate. What’s more, you have a point, your call to action.

As a corporate storyteller, I often found that people were reluctant to air their problems or get personal. But life is messy and profoundly emotional.

You have to tell stories with characters your audience will relate and react to, conflicts that will drive the plot and a point that will encourage the action you desire. Only then can you live happily ever after.

2 Responses to “People, plot and point: the 3 secrets to storytelling”

  1. Sue Horner says:

    I love that line, “life is messy and profoundly emotional.” You’d never know it by much that passes for corporate communications! Great post.

  2. Barbsawyers says:

    Many companies seems to think the more robotic they sound, the more professional they are. But professionals are human beings, who have the problems that create stories. They deal with them, which makes them heroes.

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