March 13, 2017

How to: the Remarkable Power of Superior Story Structure

People want stories and brands are chomping at the bit to deliver, but they’re falling short because of poor story structure. Or worse yet, no story. Superb story structure is one thing that will always stand the test of time, no matter how much digital technology drives our lives. Never lose sight of this if you want to know how to tell memorable brand stories.

Digital stories that sell

There is an art to storytelling for business. Stories should answer the 5 Ws you’re taught in the first minute of the first day of Journalism school: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and WHY. They also answer HOW. Now, let’s walk through how the 5 Ws and H apply to corporate storytelling and content marketing, so you can start creating killer content that connects with your audience.

Before you begin telling a story, figure out the purpose. WHAT is your goal? Also, WHO are your audience, tribe, loyalists or brand advocates? Answering these two questions are the baseline for good storytelling.

With digital technology, we have a variety of platforms to choose from for telling our brand stories, so figuring out WHO your audience is will help determine where they can be found.

For example, Beardbrand‘s founder, Eric Bandholz, started connecting with his tribe on YouTube and in his blog. He gets real and personal in his introduction video sharing his story of growing out his beard.

Personal connections are powerful. They help the audience relate in an authentic way.

Bandholz has the WHO down pat.  His audience is very specific. It’s men who are focused on their beard. Having a narrow focus helps you build trust with your niche tribe or core audience.

At this point, we’ve determined WHO our audience is, and WHAT our message is, but that’s not enough. Now, it’s time to structure our story.

Easy to remember story structure

Every story needs a strong beginning, middle and end. We live in an instant gratification world, so the beginning often makes it on the cutting room floor. However, the beginning is key in hooking the viewer. You need to capture their attention.

The beginning of a story lays the foundation. The viewer needs context or a framework for what’s coming next. The beginning should never be skipped, whether you are telling a story with video, images or text.

Think of the beginning like a spoonful of sugar. It makes the medicine in the middle (the sales pitch) go down. You need to invite the audience in and entice them to keep watching.

The start of your story usually has the WHEN and the WHERE. You are setting the stage for where your story will take place and under what circumstances. You’re introducing your main character (think of a CEO in corporate storytelling, or employee or brand advocate in marketing or advertising), and presenting a problem in need of a solution.

If you’re doing video storytelling, you also want to set the tone of the piece in the beginning. You can do this with compelling images, captivating sound or music.

Don’t skip the beginning of a story. If you don’t have time for a beginning, your audience likely won’t have time for your brand.

The heart of a story

You’ve already set the stage of the WHO, WHEN (usually now) and WHERE in the beginning of your story.  Now you get to the WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY in the middle of the story.

The middle of your story (the WHAT) is the meat of your message. This is where you get into the nuts and bolts of your key messaging and where you start the process of resolving the main character’s, or core audience’s, pain point. While it is the center of your story, the middle should only be 50% (or less) of your story.

The most time should usually be spent on the WHY and the HOW. That’s the heart of a good story. What motivates your protagonist or hero (or your brand at large) to do what they do, make their product, or provide their service?  Your audience doesn’t care nearly as much about your widgedydoo as they do about what it adds to their lives in terms of value, whether that’s convenience, style, or even alignment with their worldview.

A brand storytelling example of excellent story structure is Under Armour’s “I WILL WHAT I WANT” campaign. Misty Copeland stars in one of the most powerful videos.

She is the first African-American primary dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre.

Compelling music grabs your attention off the top. It only lasts three seconds, but it grabs you.

Then, a young girl’s voice is heard reading a letter.

“Thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately you have not been accepted.”

In this brand story, the stage is set early with a strong beginning. The viewer is hooked with the dramatic music, words and message making it easy to stick around for the middle of the story where the message is laid out.

The middle of this story is different than the beginning. There’s a change of tone. The music picks up, the spoken word becomes silent, and the powerful leaps and grace of a ballerina dance across the screen as we see extreme close-ups of Misty’s chiseled body. This goes on for 20 seconds. This is the heart of the piece. The video storytelling is so powerful, words are not needed.

The dynamic visuals tell the story of HOW and WHY Copeland achieved her dreams.

how to create a story arcCreating a story arc

This is just one example of storytelling at its best. It’s a powerful piece because you’re taken along on an emotional journey.

Every good story has the elements of highs and lows, successes and failures. As the storyteller, you need to find them.

One way to remember this is to think of your story like an architectural arch.

You set the stage, then the emotion increases as the arc goes up in this this natural rising action, reaches the pinnacle of the action, and comes down for the end.

In the Copeland case, the music and voiceover naturally take you along this arc as we move from the beginning disappointment, to the excitement and suspense of personal growth, to the surprising climax.

The crescendo can be dramatic or slow. In the Under Armour piece, it’s dramatic. We go from a low point to an extreme high as Misty Copeland puts in hard work and dedication to make it as a professional ballerina despite the odds.

Side note: sometimes brands take their content too seriously. If the information or emotion gets too heavy, it can turn viewers off. Consider some comic relief.

So how do you do this? You can use humor or at least a moment of levity in the piece to connect with your audience and give them a respite from all the information coming at them.

Some companies are afraid to use humor. It’s considered risky because the joke may alienate or divide the target audience, therefore hurting the brand.

Humor done right is powerful and sticks with your audience so they remember your brand.

Good stories connect at the end with a call to action

In the story arc, the end ties the piece together with a strong resolution. The energy level may lower slightly as the arc is on its way down, but you must leave viewers with a distinct takeaway message or call to action.

A call to action empowers the viewer to do something. HOW is your audience going to react to your piece? What do you want them to do with the information they’ve learned?

In the Copeland piece, the viewer is empowered to stand up to the critics and fight for what they believe in. Dreams can be achieved if you set your mind to it. (And oh, by the way, the audience also likes your brand more for this aspirational message, which empowers them to fight for what they want in their own lives.)

Now that you know the basics of story structure, let’s revisit WHERE in a different light.

There’s the internal WHERE of the setting of your narrative, but as marketers and storytellers, WHERE you place your story and the specific way you tell it on that platform is key.  Not every audience is the same, so the medium is the message. Tell the story in a way that is a fit for that platform and for the audience that wants to receive that message in that way.

Remember Beard Guy (see above)?

He not only connects with personal videos on YouTube, but Bandholz gets his message across using other forms of social media. He uses Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and tailors his messages/stories to the preferences of those specific audiences on the channel in which they want to receive them.

So, what are your 5 Ws and H? WHO is your story about, WHAT is the message, WHEN will the story take place, WHERE will you communicate the message, WHY should your audience care, and HOW are you going to empower your audience?

Have you seen some good storytelling methods in action lately? Email me to share it.