3 Elements of Effective Storytelling in Marketing

7 min
Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus

It’s not only in your best interest to share your organization’s story, it’s your responsibility. When you share your stories and those of the people you serve, you offer listeners the opportunity to take action and change the world for the better.

As a marketer, storytelling develops meaningful connections with your audience and moves them to rally around your cause. Yet when we speak about storytelling as a strategy, device, or technique, we trivialize the role it plays in our society.

Storytelling is fundamental to the human experience, and it’s only when we consider it as a part of our greater purpose, rather than a task, that we can inspire others to think and act for causes.

When you take time to refine your storytelling in marketing efforts, you can inspire large audiences to affect change. Below, we discuss what makes a good story and how you can incorporate it into your organization’s strategy.

The Key Elements of a Successful Story:

Marketers estimate that individuals spend just over 12 hours per day consuming different types of media. Given the sheer amount of content people see every day, you need to do everything in your power to capture an audience’s attention and hold it.

Use these tips to help tell a story that draws people in, delights, and gets your organization’s message across.

1) The Right Structure

The greatest stories you’ve ever experienced are governed by strict structure. It could be the classic Shakespearean five act setup, Joseph Campbell’s 12-part hero’s journey, or Syd Field’s timeless plot point model.

Big or small, every story needs structure to effectively communicate its message. Use the tips below to build your organization’s story for maximum effect.

Act 1, Scene 1

How your story begins determines its overall success. If your reader can’t get past the first paragraph, page, or minute, your story gets cut short and your message goes undelivered.

There are many different ways to start a story effectively. Consider these famous first lines:

  • “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • “Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger

These lines use different tactics to introduce information and grab the reader’s attention immediately:

  • Melville starts with the main character’s name
  • Hemingway describes background information about who we presume to be the main character
  • Camus hooks us in with an emotional event

When it comes to your story, consider what channel you’re leveraging and how you want your audience to digest the story. For example, an emotional hook like Camus’ might be most effective when your content is directly competing with other emails in an inbox.

The Middle Bit

Despite the broad nature of the problem you address, it’s more effective to focus on your beneficiaries’ individual stories to connect with your audience. The identifiable victim effect suggests that charitable giving tends to be greater when donors are presented with an individual story rather than a large statistic.

An individual story transforms the broad stroke of a tragedy into a personal hardship that is suddenly specific, relatable, and all the more impactful. When you use individual stories to establish one-on-one connections between your readers and the people you serve, you can boost conversion rates and donations.

In Conclusion

Just as you take special care to begin your story, you also must consider how it ends. In a way, your nonprofit’s overarching story—which is tied to your mission—doesn’t end until you solve the larger problem at hand.

It could be curing a disease, ending hunger, or saving the whales. Regardless, as you work to fulfill your mission, look at every story you tell as a stake in the ground that celebrates your accomplishments and progress. They’re installments in a larger series of work.

Each time you accomplish a smaller goal, you make progress towards the larger dream and strengthen your organization. With the right outlook and tone of voice in your narration, the never-ending story is never seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to continue to reengage your audience and provide them with updates.

2) Vivid Imagery

In order to inspire readers, your story must evoke emotion. Make sure you resonate with your audience by using powerful imagery that forms deep, emotional connections with them.

Images

Images illicit an emotional response from readers while providing a ton of information. Consider them compared to written text and video, which take time for the full picture to come to fruition as the audience consumes them.

When it comes to a photo, someone only needs a few seconds to take in its emotional overtones and impact. For example, look at some of the most powerful photos ever taken, like Tank Man—the unknown protester in Tiananmen Square:

storytelling in marketing

Or American soldiers raising the flag of victory at Iwo Jima:

storytelling in marketing

These photos tell visceral stories of protest, unrest, war, and triumph. They give voice to causes that spread across the entire world. This is some of the power your organization can tap into with the right images.

When it comes to your marketing efforts, remember that choosing the right photo is just as important as choosing where it lives. For example, images thrive in today’s social media ecosystem:

  • Instagram is fueled entirely by photographs
  • Tweets with photos receive 150 percent more retweets than those without
  • Facebook posts containing an image receive 162 percent more interaction than average posts

No matter your cause sector, it’s important you use photos that align with your mission and story.

Videos

Videos are powerful tools that bring your stories to life. They eliminate a reader’s need to rely so heavily on their imagination in order to envision the scenario you’re trying to paint. Through video, your readers are already there: they can see and hear what it’s like to be inside of your story.

Pro Tip
Your video’s narrative and music are just as important as the images on the screen. Spend just as much time crafting your message and choosing the right music as you do filming.

For a strong example of how this comes together in a marketing effort, look to Masterclass. They partner with major celebrities to teach fundamental skills of sports, cooking, or filmmaking.

To promote their courses, they film short videos that can be easily shared, digested, and celebrated all over the internet. Check out the advertisement they created with Hans Zimmer:

It introduces you to the course, shows what you can expect to learn, and puts the audience in the room with Hans Zimmer. While your organization might not have major celebrity names, you can still create a professional caliber video that markets your mission.

And if you want to go beyond your mission, there are other things your videos can portray, like:

  • Testimonials from staff, volunteers, or beneficiaries
  • Inspiring moments from your events and fundraisers
  • Your founding story
  • Tales of the impact you’ve brought to the world
  • Messages of thanks from beneficiaries

Descriptive Language

The language you use to tell your story impacts the way your audience receives it. In order to captivate readers, make sure your wording is action-oriented and easy to understand. When you “show” and “don’t tell,” you place your readers in the scene and help them imagine themselves as characters in the story.

This creates a sensory experience for readers that allows them to not just read, but feel the story. On a more psychological level, mirror neurons in the brain cause humans to internally mirror the experiences of others when they are observed, or even read.

If the human brain is already wired to internalize others’ experiences, all you have to do is paint these experiences effectively. Here are some tips from The Write Practice on how to show, not tell, your story:

  • Show a main character’s motivation by answering their “why.” Don’t just explain their behavior, explain why they are behaving a certain way
  • Show your main character’s mood through their actions, not by simply stating “John is upset.” Describe John’s body language, tone of voice, and other details that illustrate his emotions
  • Describe the setting with colorful language rather than just stating your character’s location, point blank

3) Tailored Content

As a storyteller, you need to meet your audience halfway. Ensure your stories are hitting their mark by considering what questions your audience may have ahead of time.

In order to get a clear understanding of what your they’re looking for, you have to listen to them and then segment your communications based on this information.

There are several ways to collect information to better understand your audiences’ interests, like:

  • Conduct a survey or poll via email or social media
  • Analyze your email open and click through rates to get a sense for which types of content are most popular, and with whom
  • Ask people in person at your events
  • Ask people to provide feedback in blog comments
  • Participate in conversations on social media frequently with your audience
  • Listen to your listeners–follow supporters back on social media

How to Get Started

Even the best storytellers need to practice their craft to maintain their skills. Use the exercise below to set your next story up for success:

Try This Exercise

Sit down, set your timer for 20 minutes, and answer the following questions:

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. Will you start your story with a hook, or will you first provide background information?
  3. What are the problems or obstacles that arise along the way?
  4. What is the character’s critical choice, or the climactic moment of your story?
  5. Is there a small resolution that contributes to the larger goal? (Here, think of how individual books end within a series).

If you’re like our content team, talking, reading, and thinking about writing is all it takes to pump you up. However, the hardest part is always taking that inspiration and turning it into productive activity.

When you commit to developing your craft, you’ll develop a cadence for providing your audience with authentic, valuable content that strengthens their relationship with your organization and ultimately empowers them to contribute to your cause. If you’re interested in learning all the finer details around storytelling in marketing, join us in Boston at the Collaborative this year.


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