The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling
Not a process, method, or technique. Storytelling is described as an art … the “art” of storytelling.
And — like art — it requires creativity, vision, skill, and practice. Storytelling isn’t something you can grasp in one sitting, after one course. It’s a trial-and-error process of mastery.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, and rightfully so because storytelling has become a crucial component of the most successful marketing campaigns. It sets apart vibrant brands from simple businesses and loyal consumers from one-time, stop-in shoppers.
It’s also the heart of inbound marketing.
Storytelling is an incredibly valuable tool for you to add to your proverbial marketing tool belt. That’s why we’ve compiled this guide, to help you discover and master storytelling and weave gorgeous, compelling tales for your audience.
Pick up your pen, and let’s dive in.
While this definition is pretty specific, stories actually resemble a variety of things. This graphic from ReferralCandy helps outline what stories are and are not.
Storytelling is an art form as old as time and has a place in every culture and society. Why? Because stories are a universal language that everyone — regardless of dialect, hometown, or heritage — can understand. Stories stimulate imagination and passion and create a sense of community among listeners and tellers alike.
Telling a story is like painting a picture with words. While everyone can tell a story, certain people fine-tune their storytelling skills and become a storyteller on behalf of their organization, brand, or business. You might’ve heard of these folks — we typically refer to them as marketers, content writers, or PR professionals.
Every member of an organization can tell a story. But before we get into the how, let’s talk about why we tell stories — as a society, culture, and economy.
Why Do We Tell Stories?
There are a variety of reasons to tell stories — to sell, entertain, educate or brag. We’ll talk about that below. Right now, I want to discuss why we choose storytelling over, say, a data-driven powerpoint or bulleted list. Why are stories our go-to way of sharing, explaining, and selling information?
Stories solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages.
We’ve all experienced confusion when trying to understand a new idea. Stories provide a way around that. Think about times when stories have helped you better understand a concept … perhaps a teacher used a real-life example to explain a math problem, a preacher illustrated a situation during a sermon, or a speaker used a case study to convey complex data.
Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages. Taking a lofty, non-tangible concept and relating it using concrete ideas is one of the biggest strengths of storytelling in business.
Take Apple, for example. Computers and smartphones are a pretty complicated topic to describe to your typical consumer. Using real-life stories, they’ve been able to describe exactly how their products benefit users … instead of relying on technical jargon that very few customers would understand.
Stories bring people together.
Like I said above, stories are a universal language of sorts. We all understand the story of the hero, of the underdog, or of heartbreak. We all process emotions and can share feelings of elation, hope, despair, and anger. Sharing in a story gives even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community.
In a world divided by a multitude of things, stories bring people together and create a sense of community. Despite our language, religion, political preferences, or ethnicity, stories connect us through the way we feel and respond to them … Stories make us human.
TOMS is a great example of this. By sharing stories of both customers and the people they serve through customer purchases, TOMS has effectively created a movement that has not only increased sales but also built a community.
Stories inspire and motivate.
Stories make us human, and the same goes for brands. When brands get transparent and authentic, it brings them down-to-earth and helps consumers connect with them and the people behind them.
Tapping into people’s emotions and baring both the good and bad is how stories inspire and motivate … and eventually, drive action. Stories also foster brand loyalty. Creating a narrative around your brand or product not only humanizes it but also inherently markets your business.
Few brands use inspiration as a selling tactic, but ModCloth does it well. By sharing the real story of their founder, ModCloth not only makes the brand relatable and worth purchasing, but it also inspires other founders and business owners.
What makes a good story?
Words like “good” and “bad” are relative to user opinion. But there are a few non-negotiable components that make for a great storytelling experience, for both the reader and teller.
Good stories are …
- Entertaining: Good stories keep the reader engaged and interested in what’s coming next.
- Educational: Good stories spark curiosity and add to the reader’s knowledge bank.
- Universal: Good stories are relatable to all readers and tap into emotions and experiences that most people undergo.
- Organized: Good stories follow a succinct organization that helps convey the core message and helps readers absorb it.
- Memorable: Whether through inspiration, scandal, or humor, good stories stick in the reader’s mind.
According to HubSpot Academy’s free Power of Storytelling course, there are three components that make up a good story — regardless of the story you’re trying to tell.
- Characters. Every story features at least one character, and this character will be the key to relating your audience back to the story. This component is the bridge between you, the storyteller, and the audience. If your audience can put themselves in your character’s shoes, they’ll be more likely to follow through with your call-to-action.
- Conflict. The conflict is the lesson of how the character overcomes a challenge. Conflict in your story elicits emotions and connects the audience through relatable experiences. When telling stories, the power lies in what you’re conveying and teaching. If there’s no conflict in your story, it’s likely not a story.
- Resolution. Every good story has a closing, but it doesn’t always have to be a good one. Your story’s resolution should wrap up the story, provide context around the characters and conflict(s), and leave your audience with a call-to-action.
Now that you know what your story should contain, let’s talk about how to craft your story.
The Storytelling Process
We’ve confirmed storytelling is an art. Like art, storytelling requires creativity, vision, and skill. It also requires practice. Enter: The storytelling process.
Painters, sculptors, sketch artists, and potters all follow their own creative process when producing their art. It helps them know where to start, how to develop their vision, and how to perfect their practice over time. The same goes for storytelling … especially for businesses writing stories.
Why is this process important? Because, as an organization or brand, you likely have a ton of facts, figures, and messages to get across in one succinct story. How do you know where to begin? Well, start with the first step. You’ll know where to go (and how to get there) after that.
1. Know your audience.
Who wants to hear your story? Who will benefit and respond the strongest? In order to create a compelling story, you need to understand your readers and who will respond and take action.
Before you put a pen to paper (or cursor to word processor), do some research on your target market and define your buyer persona(s). This process will get you acquainted with who might be reading, viewing, or listening to your story. It will also provide crucial direction for the next few steps as you build out the foundation of your story.
2. Define your core message.
Whether your story is one page or twenty, ten minutes or sixty, it should have a core message. Like the foundation of a home, it must be established before moving forward.
Is your story selling a product or raising funds? Explaining a service or advocating for an issue? What is the point of your story? To help define this, try to summarize your story in six to ten words. If you can’t do that, you don’t have a core message.
3. Decide what kind of story you’re telling.
Not all stories are created equal. To determine what kind of story you’re telling, figure out how you want your audience to feel or react as they read.
This will help you determine how you’re going to weave your story and what objective you’re pursuing. If your objective is to …
- … incite action, your story should describe a how a successful action was completed in the past and explain how readers might be able to implement the same kind of change. Avoid excessive, exaggerated detail or changes in subject so your audience can focus on the action or change that your story encourages.
- … tell people about yourself, tell a story that features genuine, humanizing struggles, failures, and wins. Today’s consumer appreciates and connects to brands that market with authenticity and storytelling is no exception.
- … convey values, tell a story that taps into familiar emotions, characters, and situations so that readers can understand how the story applies to their own life. This is especially important when discussing values that some people might not agree with or understand.
- … foster community or collaboration, tell a story that moves readers to discuss and share your story with others. Use a situation or experience that others can relate to and say, “Me, too!” Keep situations and characters neutral to attract the widest variety of readers.
- … impart knowledge or educate, tell a story that features a trial-and-error experience, so that readers can learn about a problem and how a solution was discovered and applied. Discuss other alternative solutions, too.
4. Establish your call-to-action.
Your objective and call-to-action (CTA) are similar, but your CTA will establish the action you’d like your audience to take after reading.
What exactly do you want your readers to do after reading? Do you want them to donate money, subscribe to a newsletter, take a course, or buy a product? Outline this alongside your objective to make sure they line up.
For example, if your objective is to foster community or collaboration, your CTA might be to “Tap the share button below.”
5. Choose your story medium.
Stories can take many shapes and forms. Some stories are read, some are watched, and others are listened to. Your chosen story medium depends on your type of story as well as resources, like time and money.
Here are the different ways you can tell your story.
- A written story is told through articles, blog posts, or books. These are mostly text and may include some images. Written stories are by far the most affordable, attainable method of storytelling as it just requires a free word processor like Google Docs … or a pen and paper.
- A spoken story is told in person, like a presentation, pitch, or panel. TED talks are considered spoken stories. Because of their “live”, unedited nature, spoken stories typically require more practice and skill to convey messages and elicit emotions in others.
- An audio story is spoken aloud but recorded — that’s what sets it apart from the spoken story. Audio stories are usually in podcast form, and with today’s technology, creating an audio story is more affordable than ever. (For a great story-driven podcast, check out The Growth Show!)
- A digital story is told through a variety of media, such as video, animation, interactive stories, and even games. This option is by far the most effective for emotionally resonant stories as well as active, visual stories … which is why it’s also the most expensive. But don’t fret: video quality doesn’t matter as much as conveying a strong message.
Now it’s time to put pen to paper and start crafting your story.
With your core message, audience objective, and call-to-action already established, this step is simply about adding detail and creative flair to your story. Read more about our storytelling formula to help you with this step.
7. Share your story.
Don’t forget to share and promote your story! Like with any piece of content, creating it is only half the battle — sharing it is the other.
Depending on your chosen medium, you should definitely share your story on social media and email. In addition, written stories can be promoted on your blog, Medium, or through guest posting on other publications. Digital stories can be shared on YouTube and Vimeo. While spoken stories are best conveyed in person, consider recording a live performance to share later.
The more places you share your story, the more engagement you can expect from your audience.
Storytelling is a trial-and-error process, and no one tells a story perfectly on the first try. That’s why we’ve collected these resources to help you fine-tune your storytelling skills and learn more about the different ways a story can be told.
For a Written Story
For a Spoken Story
For an Audio Story
For the Digital Story
Over To You
Storytelling is an art. It’s also a process worth mastering for both your business and your customers. Stories bring people together and inspire action and response. Also, today’s consumer doesn’t decide to buy based on what you’re selling, but rather why you’re selling it.
Storytelling helps you communicate that “why” in a creative, engaging way. Plus, isn’t storytelling more fun?
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