What makes an effective story?

Storytelling has emerged as one of the hottest categories of digital content.  But as with other kinds of content, it is important to distinguish between popularity and effectiveness.  Brands need clear goals for their stories, and know how their stories will benefit the audiences they want to reach.

image courtesy Getty Museum open content program
image courtesy Getty Museum open content program

Ineffective stories lecture

To understand how storytelling can be ineffective, let’s consider a typical example used by a software startup.  I’m not going to embarrass anyone by singling them out, especially startups working hard to build their customer base.  But the kind of example I’ll illustrate is a story pattern I see used widely, and I expect you may have seen it as well.  Many firms making apps have a short animated video pitching their product that appears beside their “Get it now” button on their homepage.  They try to make the pitch a story, but it doesn’t work effectively from an audience perspective.  The prototypical story might sound like this:

Meet Mary.  Mary is a busy graphic designer at a design firm.  She’s always having trouble keeping track of all the tasks she needs to coordinate with her clients.  Then one day Mary’s friend Beth mentioned NewApp.  NewApp can help Mary manage everything.  Mary has discovered the power of NewApp, and now has more free time to spend with her dog Checkers.  Mary’s delighted with NewApp, and Checkers is pretty happy too.

The story may be cute (especially the dog), and it helps convey a bit of what NewApp does.  But it presumes the audience has already bought into this vision of NewApp managing their stuff.  NewApp enters the story deus ex machina, and solves all problems. Mary can’t resist.

The story has a clear goal: to drive conversion.  But the didactic “you will feel this way” kind of storytelling doesn’t help audiences make decisions.  In real life, Mary may have looked at other products similar to NewApp, and resisted using them.  We have no hint of what the hesitation might be. A story that glosses over deeper concerns appears facile.

Stories can showcase decisions

The renowned advertising creative director Sir John Hegarty counsels: “you don’t instruct people to do something — you inspire them.”

Providing inspiration involves speaking to the audience’s concerns.

Effective stories for brands need to have what Berkeley narrative theorist Seymour Chatman calls a “kernel” event that “advances the plot by raising and satisfying questions…branching points which force a movement into one of two (or more) possible paths.”

The story protagonist needs to make a choice that isn’t clear, and there’s some tension around that decision, because they may be wrong.  That choice needs to reflect an existential issue your audience is facing themselves.

Effective stories reveal dilemmas

To illustrate an effective brand story, we will look at a product announcement from another young firm, from thirty years ago.  Apple’s famous 1984 ad for the MacIntosh, produced by the film director Ridley Scott, is widely familiar, but what makes it effective as a brand story is less immediately apparent.

The ad of course generated extreme publicity when it aired during the Superbowl in 1984, the year of Orwell’s eponymous novel.  The ad presented the story of a lone woman defying the mindless behavior of an enslaved populace and escaping pursuing police to rise up and smash the screen of Big Brother.  The story told about the ad’s narrative was that it represented David (Apple) challenging Goliath (IBM), who was  endowed with the sinister qualities of Orwell’s Big Brother.  Apple and the press loved that interpretation, but for the general public, the ad presented a deeper narrative.

While Apple obsessed about IBM, comparatively view Superbowl viewers were worried about IBM or thought of it negatively.  But IBM was significant on a symbolic level to the audience, and the ad played on this symbolism.

The personal computer was still new, and its role and destiny were still largely undefined.  People were excited by personal computers, but anxious as well.

One big source of anxiety concerned what technical standard to choose.  Consumers were already familiar with the standards wars for another consumer product, the video tape player, and knew firsthand the confusion and worry such choices forced on them.  Among personal computers, consumers had many standards to choose from: IBM, Commodore, Atari, Apple and various others.

Apple’s story had to address the appeal of going with the herd and embracing the apparent safety of choosing IBM.  Computer buyers worried about being enslaved by the wrong choice, something they’d regret later.  Apple reframed the choice from being about choosing which computer would be victorious in the market, to being which computer would be triumphant for the individual.  The individual viewer could identify with the hero smashing the screen of Big Brother, and be inspired to choose something that might feel outside the range of comfort in one respect, but feel more reassuring in another respect.

The other anxiety the story played on was concern about the office-like character of the personal computer.  At that time (unlike today), the separation between home and work was sacred, so the idea that you were bringing the office into your home was unappealing.  So the storyline in the ad suggested the corporate-provenance of IBM represented the incursion of the corporation into home life.

The defiance of the lone woman portrayed a decision for the audience: go with the herd, or make one’s own choice.  The story raised and answered a question: what is the real danger, and do you have the courage to challenge it?

Why story criteria matter

Storytelling can help brands reach and engage audiences in ways other forms of content can’t.  There is a difference between whether a story is liked, and whether it is effective.  Without defining what makes a story relevant, stories risk being bric-a-brac that gets seen and perhaps prompts smiles but has no lasting impact.

Stories need to address audience concerns to deliver outcomes.  The most effective stories are ones that speak to deep emotional worries, desires, or even sources of indifference to show how choices matter to the audience.  Lots of brands are trying to create stories that will be liked, but it’s more important that the story be deeply relevant to the lives of individuals.

— Michael Andrews