What makes a story a story, and why should you care?
Understanding what makes a story a story is essential in marketing whether you’re writing a client spotlight, press release or your brand’s origin story. I recently read a memoir that provided two key marketing lessons the author certainly hadn’t intended.
LESSON 1: A compelling story can warp into a boring narrative.
Memoirs and autobiographies can be a little narcissistic, but the last one I read was impossible to put down for the first 130 pages. I quickly developed empathy and admiration for the author. In spite of many early disadvantages, he had grown into a successful, well-adjusted adult. He came across as thoughtful and earnest.
But something changed about halfway through the book: It stopped being a story and became a mere narrative.
Authors Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace discuss the difference between stories and narratives in their excellent book Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World:
“[S]tories progress with emotional dynamics; narratives repeat emotionless facts.”
McKee has often explained that “all stories are narratives, but not all narratives are stories.” In Storynomics, he defines “Story” as
“a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.”
Without those elements— emotional dynamics, conflict and change—people will quickly tune out. That’s what happened halfway through the memoir I recently read. The emotional dynamics of the early chapters dried up, replaced by details that seemed forced and, in some cases, self-serving.
If you don’t have emotional dynamics, you don’t have a story.
LESSON #2: People tend to be apathetic, at best, towards overdogs.
The author, now a recognized scholar with leadership roles in several civic organizations, ceased to be an underdog I felt I was rooting for. There’s nothing wrong with being successful, but that doesn’t make every mundane detail of your life interesting just because it’s about you.
The trials and hard-won victories of the author’s childhood made me feel his pain and celebrate his early success. Now the book’s purpose seemed to be self-promotion. Details about his social and professional advancement became a major focus of the book, second only to his opinions. Yawn.
When you’re telling your own story or your company’s, remember two things:
- Maintain that focus on emotional dynamics. Eliminate details that don’t support your overarching message or theme. A single, tumultuous week can justify an entire book, while it might be best to summarize an entire decade in a couple of paragraphs.
Your products and services solve tangible problems, but they also give people peace of mind. Think about what keeps people up at night, what pisses them off and what inspires them. Talk about what you do from that angle. You’ll be ten times as memorable.
- Don’t make yourself an overdog. Some people will always begrudge you for being successful. That’s their problem. But most people will admire someone who gives credit where it’s due. If you talk about how blessed your team, clients and support network have always made you feel, people will be happy to see you succeed. If you seem like you were bound to succeed at the outset, people will think you’re just some lucky wanker.
“The perception of underdogness draws empathy faster than any other cause. So above all else, avoid ‘overdog’ protagonists.”
Leave it to others to speak well of you and your brand. Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on what inspires you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable on occasion and leave all the humdrum details in mental filing cabinets where they belong.
Invite people into your story, don’t corner them by the water cooler with narratives.
I help purpose-driven entrepreneurs elevate their marketing through storytelling, humor, and clear strategic messaging.
Posted on: May 9, 2019