Short, Simple & Sweet: Creating the Magic of Storytelling

Remember the Volkswagen ad where the little boy playing Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” to make objects move? It was the most watched ad on YouTube in 2011, with 45 million hits. Check it out. It now has a whopping 52 million views.


Jean Gianfagna, president of Gianfagna Strategic Marketing based in Cleveland, believes its storytelling concept is the key.

OK. We buy into that completely. But just how is this storytelling done?

While we’ve been talking about the power of story on this blog and having experts chime in on its importance in marketing and for social well-being, we haven’t really touched on how to create this magic. What is the best strategy? What are the guidelines for good storytelling that your agency or organization should know so it can pull it off effectively?

Gianfagna, for one, believes there are seven characteristics of effective storytelling. From her blog, SmartMarketingStrategy, she writes:

1. It’s engaging: The viewer is immediately drawn into the scenario. Something interesting is happening and you want to know what it is.

2. It’s emotional: The best advertising stories make you feel something: Empathy, humor, joy, tension, excitement.

3. It’s memorable: You get it and can’t forget it.

4. It’s easy to retell: You can describe the basic scenario in one sentence.

5. It has a plot: There’s a beginning, middle, and end.

6. There’s an element of suspense: You have to stick with the ad to see how the story will turn out.

7. Most important, the product plays a pivotal role: The product is woven into the story so well that the story couldn’t be told with it.

It’s our opinion that those storytelling elements can work whether you’re selling a car or a critical transportation project that the car will very much need.

And there are other factors for successful storytelling, as well. Many experts, for instance, advise you to keep the story brief. Take the Volkswagen ad. It runs just over a minute.

Keep it simple. In the Volkswagen ad, there’s not a single word of dialogue. All the storytelling is done through body language. Still, its power is indisputable.

Darth Vader
(Credit: Volkswagen)

Jay Conger, professor of Leadership Studies at Claremont McKenna College, believes the above elements are important strategies in creating effective stories. He also believes you should keep the number of characters to just two or three and to tell the story in the present tense.

Here’s a link where he explains his strategies:

Daniel Brooks of Metia, a digital marketing agency, believes there are seven key rules to effective storytelling. On his blog, he writes:

1. Create a compelling plot: A story needs a beginning, middle, and an end. Whatever shape or form your customer marketing/advocacy campaign takes, it’s crucial that a) the components tell a whole story, and b), each component tells its own story.

Give your audience a reason to tune in by creating a compelling plot.

2. Choose your narrative wisely: Think of narrative as the way you communicate your brand’s personality. It refers to the style and tone you use to convey your plot. Style and tone need to be consistent so as not to confuse your audience.

Pay attention to narrative, it helps your brand stand out.

3. Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Throughout history, stories have been conveyed through a variety of formats, including symbols, pictures, spoken and/or written text. Know your audience and choose the story format that suits their time constraints and expectations.

Connect with your audience by choosing the right story format.

4. Make it relevant: You wouldn’t turn on MTV if you wanted to watch a classic opera. The same thing can be said about customer evidence. Why create a ten-minute video about making ice cream when you’re selling shoes?

Choose your customers’ story for its relevance to your target audience.

5. Keep it simple: Our attention spans are shrinking ─ even for things we enjoy reading or watching. Multiply that by 100 if you’re a time-starved executive who’s reading their 100th email of the day. Make it easy to understand your message and don’t try and include too many facts, figures, and ideas in one story.

Identify the best metrics and/or achievements and make them the focus.

6. Keep it real: A story that highlights real customer challenges and the steps taken to overcome them is a credible and effective piece of marketing collateral. You may want to talk about your expertise, insights and interests, but you need to listen to what your customers are talking about.

Take them on a journey that speaks to their goals.

7. Choose fact over fiction: We’re talking business here. You need hard facts supported by quotes from real people if you want to be believed.

Never resort to waffle or jargon when there’s nothing else to say.

We’d like to add two more pieces of advice. First, practice. Practice creating stories and practice telling them. And second, make sure the story you tell supports your overall message.

With a strong connection to the message and a little practice to make it perfect, you will help your organization live happily ever after.

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Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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